If it launches as scheduled later this month, iStreamcast.com promises Internet surfers a virtual broadband living room from which to view free television video on their PCs. But the fledgling site may encounter an immediate backhand from several cable networks over a niggling legal issue — the programmers say they never gave the site permission to use their TV content or brands.
Now running in beta test form, iStreamcast.com — the brainchild of Moses Johnson, a former Pseudo.com executive producer and now CEO of Solarbaybies Inc. — is set to bow March 21. In a launch announcement Feb. 14, iStreamcast.com claimed some 150 channels, including MTV: Music Television, Cable News Network, Fox News Channel and Showtime.
As of last week, the beta site's channel count stood at about 62, supplied by links from other streaming portals. Some channels, such as those offering MSNBC and Cartoon Network, direct viewers to the original sites to find content, while others, including BasementTV, play within iStreamcast.com's player window.
iStreamcast.com will offer TV content in two formats: streaming live news programming on a 30-second delay, and select programming provided by a network on an on-demand basis. Of the two, the latter will get the greater focus, drawing mostly on video "leftovers" TV networks often gather on dusty shelves.
"It's scrapple," Johnson said. "But one man's crap is another guy's gold. I love B movies — I find them very entertaining. Who's to say what's really scrapple?"
Since TV networks often try to use such content on their own affiliate sites, that may seem like a duplication of effort. But Johnson said his site's advantage is that it can serve as a pooling point, drawing more users to multiple networks' content than any programmer could attract via its own efforts.
"That's where the aggregate comes into play," he said. "The aggregate means that it is all right here, so you can pop from MTV into JCTV, and from JCTV to Basement TV. It's very attractive to have the opportunity to get the traffic [from] the other channels after they have been utilized."
Other outlets, such as ifilm.com and AtomFilms.com, have tried to do the same with unused video content. Johnson said the difference between his site and these predecessors is "they are very academic. It's like a library. You read and you go from here and search there.
"I think it drains your energy. It's time-consuming, and it's often not very fruitful."
What's in it for the programmer? Future revenue from click-through commercial video spots Johnson hopes to add to the content channels, with part of the profit shared with programmers.
Until then, Johnson said he can keep his business afloat with no real revenue coming in from the site. Solarbaybies also provides encoding and Web repurposing services, and its site also hawks video gear used to watch Web content on TV.
But there are already signs iStreamcast.com could be facing challenges from the very networks it wants to court. A call to Fox News Channel regarding its relationship with iStreamcast.com prompted network lawyers to fire off a cease-and-desist order to Johnson, stating that it is illegal to reproduce, transmit, telecast or otherwise use any Fox property without written permission from the company.
"Fox is particularly concerned that its intellectual property not be used in a manner that will likely lead to the impairment of goodwill represented by the name 'Fox News Channel,' as well as the likelihood of confusion as to an affiliation with and endorsement of the Web site," the letter stated.
Fox News was supplied to iStreamcast.com via the University of Michigan. Johnson said the university had no problem cutting that deal with iStreamcast.com, and "they also have CNN and a bunch of other channels, and these streams can be found on several different portals throughout the Web."
Shortly after Johnson received the Fox letter the university changed its Web feed lineup and dropped Fox News. Nonetheless, Johnson wants to use the situation an opening to discuss the possibilities with the network, he said.
"I'm ready to talk now. I'm ready to go in and sit down and I want to explain what we want to do," Johnson said. "And I want to explain to them some of the things we can do to enhance the experience of Fox News on the Web, because there are lot of things we can do to enhance the experience."
The Fox letter may not be the last. When contacted, spokeswomen for Showtime and MTV said their networks had no affiliation or distribution deals with iStreamcast.com. Both networks will be looking into how the site is using their content, they said.
Rick Ellis, an Internet media analyst and CEO of television information portal AllYourTV.com, said he had examined the site and sees no long-term prospects.
"There have been a couple of attempts like this, and they generally get shut down pretty quickly," Ellis said.
Perhaps the bigger issue for networks is related to the site's linking strategy. Ellis noted that iStreamcast.com appears to be getting some of its content from underground Web outlets that also don't have permission to distribute content.
"I guess it is the Napster philosophy of broadband, which is if you don't actually host it your self, but you just link to other people who are doing it illegally, somehow your liability is lessened," Ellis said. "I'm not sure any of the studios really believe in that argument."
The greater threat to networks may not come from sites like iStreamcast.com, which announce their intentions and provide a visible target for legal action. As with Napster in the audio world, video file swapping may be evolving toward decentralized, harder-to-find communities of users.
"What I'm finding a lot more is people trading stuff on an individual basis. It's not someone setting up a site; it's people trading episodes of Alias back and forth," Ellis said. "That's really the danger to a network — it's not some guy in a basement in Brooklyn somewhere."