The State of Broadband Entertainment
Jul 1, 2001 12:00 PM, NATHANIEL HECHT
We just don't have the bandwidth available to see full-length movies in the way we are used to.
WHILE THERE ARE PLENTY OF BOOTLEGGED VERSIONS OF BLOCK-BUSTER movies available on the Web, it was not until January of this year that Miramax Films entered the broadband entertainment market with the online release of its 1999 movie, Guinevere, for download. The cost was relatively low at only $3.49, and it marked the first time a major Hollywood movie distributor did anything like it. Sound good? Well, as great an idea as it may be, the sad reality is that most people who tried to get the film found many obstacles, from non-support of the Macintosh platform to improperly configured PCs.
Those who were able to complete the download often found that the time it took to actually get it (even with a high-speed line) was longer than the movie itself, especially after adding in the time spent configuring the computer system for viewing. On top of that, the results were less than spectacular, with poor picture quality and the ability to view the movie only on your computer screen, a poor substitute for a crisp and clear DVD copy playing on virtually any television set. Other studios, of course, have announced plans to repeat what Miramax has done, and Miramax itself is aggressively pursuing a plan to produce about a dozen more titles this year for download.
What is wrong with this picture? The problem is that we just don't have the bandwidth available with current broadband technology to see full-length movies the way we are used to seeing them. And the streaming delivery system used to send the movie out over the Web is prone to glitches in the network, which delays the stream from time to time. Additionally, no one has really figured out how to make it pay. As opposed to broadcasting over the airwaves, which has a fixed cost no matter how many viewers there are, streaming over the Internet increases as the audience increases, due to fees that must be paid by the providers of the content on a per-viewer basis. These costs cause providers to increase their ad rates, and that turns off the advertisers, which in turn causes the provider to subsist on subscription revenue alone — and there are simply not enough subscribers yet. That's why stations are having a hard time covering their costs.
The long and the short of it is that the cable television market works now; and while many were touting the Web as the new medium for broadcasting, most agree that the economics do not work and the technology is limited. This does not mean that broadband media will go away, but that it will be used creatively for shorter films and promotional purposes as far as video is concerned in the near future. Let's not forget music files, which are still going strong over broadband and are probably the most important reason why people have signed up for it. Napster was a major catalyst, and there will be others to follow. As broadband speeds continue to increase with new technology, video will surely become more readily available, and this system may one day work. Miramax's lack of success will, at least, be the milestone remembered as the first time it was tried. For now though, it is clearly safe to assume that cable television will be with us into the future.