Little-known America's Health Network got
an international publicity lift last week, when a mother agreed to "download"
her fourth child live for an Internet audience on its Web site.
But only time will tell whether this was the first of
"must-see Web TV," or the cable network's proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
According to an AHN spokesman, the network decided to
Webcast the birth in order to educate women on things that mothers can do to prevent
problems in delivery, and to discuss different obstetrical choices.
The uniqueness of the event certainly gained attention for
the network, which only has between 7 million and 8 million subscribers. It was written up
in USA Today and featured on national newscasts before the mother, known only as
Elizabeth, had birth induced last Tuesday at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Women and
Children, near AHN's Orlando, Fla., headquarters.
When asked whether AHN's event represented breakthrough
programming, cable operators declined to answer publicly, noting that they may be sitting
across a negotiating table from network executives in the future, and they did not want to
tip their hands. But they were aware of the netcast due to the publicity.
"What's next?" asked one cable representative,
The publicity-driven curiosity was both a boon and a bane
to the Internet effort.
AHN spokeswoman Barbara Rodriguez said the Internet
production was equipped with a server with capacity for 50,000 viewers of the streaming
video. But potential viewers overwhelmed the network and caused frequent dropouts of both
sound and video.
When viewers could log on to www.AHN.com, either live or during a 26-minute replay available
throughout the week after the birth, what they saw was video that was harder to make out
than transmission from the Russian Space Station Mir. If this is an example, Web video has
a long way to go before it is competitive with cable or broadcast TV.
This viewer logged on to a 20-kilobit-per-second version of
the birth video -- there was also a 54-kbps version -- viewed best on a 2.5-inch-by-4-inch
window on my computer. The first image was of Walter Larimore, host of AHN's Ask the
Family Doctor, who has delivered 3,000 babies. He provided the play-by-play of the
Larimore was often obscured by shadowy images and
artifacts, and the video crept by like someone slowly flipping a picture book. The audio
was murky, too, and Larimore's narration was often rendered inaudible by the more than
one-dozen people in the room, including medical personnel and the patient's husband and
Network congestion required constant rebuffering, which
meant that the audio would drop out entirely for 10 seconds at a time, often back-to-back.
As for content, there was as much in it as there was when
Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault. Cameras were placed discretely over the patient's
shoulder, so you couldn't actually see the birth (not that one expected a "crotch
cam," but at least something more clinical).
Rodriguez said the cable network's site got about 10
million hits on the day of the birth. Of course, that figure does not break out multiple
hits by the same user. For instance, this viewer got knocked off the server twice while
trying to view the video.
As for the effort, "we've learned a lot from it,"
she said, "It went as well as it could have." The network anticipates future
live surgeries on a monthly basis.
AHN referred further technical questions on the Web effort
to Tod Fetherling, president of AHN.com. However, Fetherling went on a business trip after
the event, and he did not return repeated calls.
AHN's event was criticized by some in the medical
profession, who branded the Webcast as a stunt. Mike Greene, of the American College of
Obstetrics and Gynecology, said the AHN event was without "redeeming social
value," and it contained no information that a woman couldn't obtain in an average
Planned Parenthood declined comment on the Webcast.
"It's not something that we want to get involved
in" a spokesman said.