Internet Video’s 'Best Effort’ Still Lacking

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Last Tuesday evening, you could feel — and see — the plates shift, after dinner in my household.

No, it wasn’t Teenage Son clearing the table. It was Dad, sitting down in his favorite chair in the family room and turning off the TV.

For the first time, I planned to spend my evening hour of personal entertainment with the computer screen. To watch TV.

The plan: to watch Stephen Colbert in action — he of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, who makes mocking an extreme sport. Only I wasn’t going to watch Colbert on cable or a recording of him from my Cablevision set-top box.

Instead, like millions of other Americans, I wanted to see Colbert riffing (and ripping) on the Bush presidency at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April. And Steve Bridges’ pitch-perfect impersonation of W, from the same event.

These “shows” were captured by a cable channel, C-SPAN. But the playback was from Google Video.

This was to be a test of Glenn Britt’s response to The New York Times on whether all television is going over to the Internet. “The answer to that is not anytime soon. The Internet as it exists today is not capable of delivering hundreds of channels to millions of homes,” the CEO of Time Warner Cable said.

How about just one household? Even after a decade of development, the quality of video coming out across the Internet on my high-speed connection was dreadful.

This was very simple stand-up comedy. A face. Hand gestures and arm waving. One body moving, from behind a podium.

I kept Colbert open on a window about five inches wide and three inches deep. And couldn’t, to quote a Bush, read his lips, at any time. The video remained fuzzy. And the moment you tried to use the computer for any other task, the video went out of whack. And never recovered.

When Colbert stopped talking, I counted to 21 before he stopped moving. Jerkily.

“The Internet is not designed for the kind of experience people are used to with television,’’ Time Warner Cable chief technology officer Mike LaJoie asserted afterward.

It’s a “best-efforts” network, as is well-known. And, a programmer, whether it’s C-SPAN or NBC or Comedy Central, has to deal with what LaJoie calls the “reverse funnel” effect. Right now, a programmer trying to deliver content over the Internet would have to serve 120 million households, from its own servers. And figure out which markets don’t get the same program at the same time; and which commercials “air” in which markets. “The size of the pipe that NBC would have to have does not exist,’’ according to LaJoie.

So basically, pulling up Colbert on the Internet turned out to be like watching radio. The video was incidental, the cutaway shots of the audience reaction the most informative part.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Internet’s video billionaire, Mark Cuban, notes on his blog that engineers at his Broadcast.com Web service in the late ’90s had been working with Internet backbone communications networks to use a technology called multicasting, to achieve quality transmissions.

With digital tunnels established inside the Internet, one copy of a program can be sent everywhere, essentially. Routers grab the stream as it goes by and send a copy to nearby users, as needed.

Until some technology like this is embedded in the Internet, until more caching of content near viewers is set up and until business agreements setting out exactly what constitutes broadcast-quality video service are established, LaJoie says video on the Internet won’t really be able to compete with TV as we know it —technically.

But that’s not the sad part of this plate-shifting moment.

The point is I was happy to spend an hour with video on the Internet, despite the fractured view. Colbert’s mocking and Bridge’s mimicking of a president were hilarious — and these were for more than this one viewer, the best shows on TV for a night.

From now on, only great shows will grab and keep eyeballs on pay television. If you’re going to ask someone “in the demo” to give you his or her undivided attention for an hour, much less two, the program can’t be uninspired.

Otherwise, there will be plenty of ways to fill up an evening, get a laugh or two, and move on.

As Colbert intoned to a clip of a young Dan Rather in a once-real presidential press conference, “What a terrible trip, Danny. Take me home.’’

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