Nothing to Watch on TV? Streaming Video Appeals to Niche Audiences

Nothing to Watch on TV? Streaming Video Appeals to Niche Audiences


By MICHEL MARRIOTT
Published: August 6, 2007



Johnny Depp, left, and Francesco Quinn in “Con Man.”

Buffering … buffering … buffering.


PHOTO: Peter Yates for The New York Times


Barry Henthorn, co-founder of ReelTime, which is staking its future on streaming video.

 
Short films featuring R. Kelly on the Independent Film Channel’s Web site.

Seeing these words blinking
at the bottom of the postage-stamp-size screen during a download of
jerky video defines the annoying experience of entertainment on a
computer monitor.

However, the potential of new streaming video
services — fast, full screen and in sharp resolution — is unleashing a
torrent of movies and television shows, much of it aimed at narrowly
defined audiences that can’t find niche programming even on cable
systems with 500 or more channels.


The Independent Film Channel is streaming 22 short films called “Trapped in the Closet” by the R&B recording artist R. Kelly. The Jewish Television Network,
a nonprofit television production and distribution company, is
streaming music videos by Jewish performers, cooking shows and Israeli
news programs. The network is also planning to stream religious
services during the High Holy Days in September, the sort of broadcast
that would be hard to find on mainstream television.

“There is
extreme interest in streaming because it simplifies the process of
getting video to the consumer,” said Ross Rubin, the director of
industry analysis for the NPD Group, a market analysis company.

Streaming
video, unlike downloads, never resides on a viewer’s computer. It
usually cannot be replayed as a downloaded file can be, which is
another reason that content creators like it.

The growing use
and popularity of streaming among consumers are closely tied to the
increasing popularity of broadband Internet connections in homes. The
Pew Internet & American Life Project estimated that 47 percent of
American households have broadband connections that make streaming
possible because it transmits data faster.

“The greater
adoption of broadband in the United States is really raising the ante
for all kinds of content from premium Hollywood offerings to pet
videos,” said Mr. Rubin, who noted that NBC and ABC have begun
streaming their prime-time programming to online viewers.

This year, the DVD rental company Netflix
began to take advantage of click-and-view streaming of full-length
films and television episodes with a subscription service. “Push a tab
‘Watch Now’ and more than 3,000 television episodes and movies come up
in 30 seconds or less,” said Steve Swasey, a Netflix spokesman.
“There’s no downloading.”

Streaming high-quality video to
computers and television screens is the “first step to getting what
people want to see on any screen they want, from laptops to cellphones
to wide-screen televisions,” Mr. Swasey said. “Netflix’s goal is to get
movies delivered instantly to all those different screens.”

Companies like ReelTime, Joost, Limelight Networks and Brightcove are staking their futures on streaming video.

“We’re point, click and watch — instantly,” said Barry Henthorn, the
chief executive and co-founder of ReelTime. “We never stop and never
buffer.”

ReelTime, based in
Seattle, digitally distributes thousands of movies and television shows
to customers who either rent titles for 99 cents each or subscribe to
the service for $4.99 a month to $19.99 for six months.

While
ReelTime content can easily be watched on desktop and notebook
computers, Mr. Henthorn urges customers to connect the computer to the
television’s larger screen for viewing because, he said, “the quality
is that good.”

Mr. Henthorn said ReelTime’s streaming technology
depends on a peer-to-peer network. Some of the content comes straight
from ReelTime, but to speed the delivery other portions of it are
pulled from subscribers’ computers that have previously downloaded the
content. The more users who download the ReelTime player and view its
content, the faster and better content streams to and from all users.

“Right
now all kinds of things are being shoved, rather inefficiently, over
the Internet,” Mr. Henthorn said. “Once people can watch full-screen
video anytime anywhere, the tolerance for four-inch screens will go
away.”

Streaming has been a boon to media companies catering to a narrowly defined audience.

FEARnet,
for example, has a passion for the horror genre. It began streaming
video last Halloween as the “the first multiplatform horror network,”
with programming that can be viewed online, on demand and on mobile
devices, said its president, Diane Robina. The service, free to
registered users, whom they call “victims,” makes its money from banner
advertisements that appear on the Web site. The site uses advanced
streaming technologies to deliver full-length horror films like “The
Hunger,” a 1983 tale of elegant vampires.

FEARnet, a joint venture of Comcast,
Sony Pictures Entertainment and Lionsgate, also produces and streams
original content. The site is showing a film called “Devil’s Trade,”
about teenagers and a cursed tree in New Jersey. It was originally a
six-episode series, shot digitally for the Internet.

The Jewish
Television Network had produced programming like “The Jewish
Americans,” a six-hour documentary that is scheduled to air on Public Broadcasting Service
stations in January. Jay Sanderson, the company’s chief executive, said
he had never considered online distribution of its programming because
of the low quality of the video. That changed this year when he saw the
improvement.

“We waited until we got to a point where the
technology would not hurt our content,” Mr. Sanderson said. He said
much of his network’s existing programming involves 30-minute pieces.

But for the Internet, he said he is cutting them into three- to
five-minute segments. “We’re going to do some really long programs in
the fall,” he said.

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