Feed the world

Feed the world

I love the Internet, don't you? It seems just about every week someone's got some fantastic idea for how the limited bandwidth of the global computer network can be exploited for humanitarian, commercial or nefarious means (or, in a few cases, all of the above). It's currently the IT industry's leading source of completely hair-brained ideas and is therefore worthy of close consideration.

The particular idea that seems to be sweeping the world at the moment is that the Web could possibly be a substitute for television. You can see where the idea comes from:

The Web can carry moving images, and if you have a fast enough server, these can be of reasonably high quality.

It's much cheaper to set up a Web server with streaming video than it is to set up a TV station, so you don't need as much advertising to cover your costs. You can also look at other revenue generators (such as e-commerce) that may obviate ads altogether.

Your potential audience is anyone with an Internet connection, so you're not limited to the broadcast radius of a TV station. A TV show about potato collecting won't attract a large audience in any given area, but the worldwide potato collecting community will flock in droves (or drove in flocks, whichever) to your Web site.

All of these are good reasons why you might want to broadcast certain types of program via the Internet instead of TV. However, some people seem to go for Internet broadcasting for amazingly bad reasons.

For instance, Sam Donaldson, a respected American news anchorperson who has fronted the 20/20 program since sometime in the Mesozoic era, left recently to head up an Internet-based program produced by the ABC network (the American ABC, that is, the one without the Wiggles). The idea was that Donaldson's reputation and massive following would attract gajillions of viewers to the Web broadcast, where they would, for the first time, be able to interact with Donaldson and his interview subjects.

It's a terrific idea, but one thing seems to have been left out of the figuring: how many of Sam's loyal fans actually have Net connections? The washup after the broadcast seems to indicate that a total of 127 people tuned in at one time or another during the show, with about 90 or so online simultaneously at its peak. Donaldson, who is accustomed to roughly 15 million viewers a week, might want to check his contract and find out just how committed he is to this idea.

The producers of NetAid, a hip 90s successor to LiveAid, FarmAid and other worthy charity concert events in the 80s, probably had more reason to expect their broadcast would do well. The idea was that three concerts at international venues would be linked by a broadcast on radio, TV and, naturally, the Net.

The line-up of acts was impressive, although I have to admit that I was really only familiar with the performers who had also been at LiveAid 14 years ago (see last week's column for further lamentations about how old I feel). The target audience was clearly people my age and younger, a goodly proportion of whom have Internet connections these days.

Add to that the worthiness of the cause, plus the reach of TV and radio, and you have the potential for a solid fundraiser. Problem: it didn't work.

For a start, attendance at the live venues was woeful. None of the venues actually filled to capacity, and all reported that half of the audience had left before the end of the show. Then, there was the TV aspect. If it was broadcast on TV out here, it wasn't promoted well at all. Yet if it hoped to attract a billion viewers, TV was where it would get them.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there aren't a billion people with Internet connections in the world. Just a hunch. Cisco, which set up the NetAid servers, says it could have hosted just over a million simultaneous connections. In other words, at best the Internet could have coped with 0.1 per cent of the projected audience of this Internet-focused event.

But by calling it NetAid and promoting it as a thing you could see on the Net, the organisers drew people away from watching it on TV, listening to the radio or even going to see it live. In the name of hipness, they sacrificed a great opportunity.

I've got nothing against hipness (you should see my hips), but it seems to me there are just some things for which the Net just isn't the right way to go.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@

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