I don't own a television set, but I just got a Zattoo account, so now I have BBC World and CNN and Swiss television and other channels from various European countries running live on a corner of my laptop screen.
Online video is one of the hottest trends of the moment, pushed by the convergence of broadband, compression algorithms, and sharing sites. User-generated video; online-only shows; online news broadcasts; viral ad campaigns; etc. Television broadcasters however have so far looked at the Internet with lots of reservations. Viacom recently even asked YouTube to remove videofiles of broadcast shows such as Jon Stewart's, despite the fact that the popularity of the shows has benefitted from this user-led online marketing (they later made a licensing agreement). Rare are the broadcasters that let you see their programs in full online - the most ambitious ones offer premium access, others are testing the waters: CBS made a deal recently with YouTube by which it offers videoclips in return to the right to check YouTube's content for materials carrying CBS' copyright: "it can then choose between removing the offending clips or getting a cut of the revenue YouTube generates from any advertising linked to the clip", writes Business2.0. The UK's BSkyB has announced a few days ago a deal with Google to do the same.
So, broadcasters are still not comfortable with the Internet. They often have sophisticated websites meant to attract the online ad money, but so far they've kept their video feeds away from the online audiences.
Safe prediction: it's going to happen soon, as demand for longer, high-quality online video content is likely to grow. And it may be on the broadcasters' own terms. The Venice Project (codename) is on its way, as I blogged recently (they started bringing in beta testers today) and its founders (the same two Scandinavians that came up with Skype) say that they want to license the content from its owners.
That's also what Zattoo does: it gives access to television channels, streamed live to your computer, full content, no makeup, and does so legally. Zattoo is a one-year-old startup based in Ann Arbor and Zurich. Their service is currently in beta (so the images sometimes flicker, depending on your bandwidth) and for legal reasons it is geographically limited. If you're not based in Switzerland, you won't be able to download their browser yet. If you are in Switzerland and want to try it out, just go to their site and register, download the browser, and start watching. They say that more countries will be covered soon.
The interface (screenshot at right) is at its simplest: a window with a volume controller, and a menu of channels. To switch channel, click on the one you want to see. The technology behind it is instead rather complex. It was originally developed at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor by professor Sugih Jamin to distribute scientific conferences online, and is based on real-time peer-to-peer. The software that users download is at the same time a client (it allows them to view) and a proxy server (if the central server is too busy sending out video streams, the system "rebalances" the load by streaming parts of them directly from other users that are watching the same channel). This is very similar to the Skype approach, which transforms some users into "supernodes" (see these previous posts for details), and I'm assuming that the Venice Project is based on this technology, too.
Unlike what's known about Venice (although I haven't been able to test it yet - if you're a beta tester, I would welcome an invitation to become one too) in Zattoo there is no time-shifting, no search, no tagging: just neat and clean television, existing channels broadcast live and unedited. They will be complemented by additional offerings, such as theme channels (music, festivals, movies, etc). Some of them will be offered for free, some will be available for subscribers as bundles of programs - the exact same approach used by cable operators. And it will also be possible to subscribe to individual channels. Because no part of the encrypted streams gets stored anywhere, content owners will feel that their rights are adequately protected. They will get a fee per user from Zattoo, like they get today from cable operators.
Neither Zattoo nor Venice (screenshot at left, from their homepage) will allow for the recording of programs - but given the TiVo experience, I suspect that a "save as MPEG" button will be very high on the list of future features requested by users (although implementing it would open up a legal minefield).
With both Zattoo and Venice, television gets uncoupled from television sets: get Zattoo and you can watch your local or your country channel even while on the go, as long as you can plug your computer into a broadband line (including at the office). Zattoo in Japanese means "big crowd". For now, it has about 50'000 users in Switzerland, beta-testing it. It will soon open up in other countries. When Venice launches, they will have a gigantic advantage: the 100+ million people who are using Skype and who will certainly receive an unsolicited e-mail from the founders. Which will make for an interesting big vs small, fast vs faster race.
Related post: The Venice Project: 507 channels and somethin' on (24 Oct 06)