I'm still streaming
Never a shrinking violet. Elton John was quick to see the potential of webcasting gigs to audiences of thousands. But would the punters pay for it?
David Bowie isn't the only 70s pop icon who's got a grip on the web -- recently Elton John webcast his Ephesus gig in Turkey through the MSN.co.uk portal. And just so that he doesn't run short of a few bob for the odd shopping trip, viewers of what was billed as the biggest pay-per-view online event to date were charged £7 to £10 a pop to log on.
So how was this internet broadcast, which was restricted to those with high-speed internet connections, put together? And was it a success -- how many internet users, who are so accustomed to content on the web being free, put their hands in their pockets and paid up? And what, if anything, did it demonstrate about the market for paid-for content on the net?
For the webcast, the artist management company Media Arts Corporation brought together the three outfits that had worked on the two previous 'biggest-ever' pop web events -- the webcasts last year of Paul McCartney at The Cavern and Madonna at the Brixton Academy. The three key partners were the digital broadcasting company, MediaWave, the TV production company, Done and Dusted, and of course, MSN.co.uk, which played host to the webcast itself.
Content management company Castify was also brought in, while Brains Direct developed the registration, authentication and pay-per-view system.
Where previously the emphasis with this kind of event had been on attracting the biggest audience -- 9m were claimed for the Madonna webcast, for example, although it's likely that a far smaller number were able to view the concert -- this time it would all be about delivering a 'high-quality experience'.
This was the rationale for restricting it to those with high-speed internet access, which in the UK would limit access to those with high-speed connections at work, or the 2% of home internet users that have broadband. Those with 100k access were charged £7 while those with 300k connections paid a £10 fee. Additionally, the audience was capped in order to maintain quality.
The archived 90-minute webcast, which included behind-the-scenes footage and competitions in addition to Elton John's Ephesus performance, was available on the MSN.co.uk site for a week after the event.
On 17 July a 40-strong Done and Dusted crew, using eight cameras, filmed the gig, which took place in the First Century Roman Amphitheatre at Ephesus and was attended by 9,000 fans. MediaWave took a live feed that it transmitted back to its data centre in the UK by satellite, where it was encoded into 100k and 300k broadband streams.
One of the carriers, Ebone, which claims to have Europe's largest broadband and IP network, said that it was able to support 10,000 viewers simultaneously at 100k across its network. The other carriers were KPNQuest, Level 3, Telia and Exodus.
MediaWave CEO Chris Frampton says: 'We had in place four fibre backbones on multiple providers. We had quite a lot of capacity [and] we were using a new 3G network. MediaWave only does streaming -- the whole system is geared up for streaming.'
Frampton claims: 'We wouldn't have been phased by 250,000 to 500,000 people.'
MediaWave itself got an early break as Real Network's distributor -- but at a time when there was very little interest in the UK in streaming. By necessity it built up expertise in this new area, and now offers services ranging from internet broadcasting, video production, encoding, hosting and consulting. The company employs 70 people and has some backing from Microsoft.
Frampton adds: 'It would be wrong to call it [the webcast] an experiment but it was a first. 100k and 300k were chosen to find out about appetite. Interestingly, 60% came in on the 300k stream.'
So what was the experience like for the viewer? MediaWave says that for the viewer logging onto the 100k stream there was excellent picture quality and near-CD quality sound, while at 300k viewers were able to watch near-VHS quality video and CD quality sound.
However, postings on the discussion boards at the unofficial Elton John fan website www.eltonfan.net give a more mixed message, with a number complaining about difficulties with the registration procedure. Others, however, are upbeat -- Troy Purinton reports difficulties accessing the webcast but ends 'when I finally got to watch it, it was great!'
Fan Stephan Heimbecher says he did get to see the archived concert 'in superb audio and video quality streaming' although he does go on to complain that the £10 fee allowed him to access the gig only once.
Another fan, David Wright, is unimpressed: 'I found the whole thing to be a disaster... from the archive I have heard most of the show but never the last 15 minutes. I have not seen so much as one frame of picture.' He was, however, using a 56k modem, although says he was promised decent sound and intermittent pictures.
So what does the webcast tell us about internet audiences' readiness to pay for content? Frampton says firmly that rather than there being a sea-change in attitudes, audiences have never had a problem with paying. 'People have always been prepared to pay for content that's relevant to them. In a global market there's a market for even the most niche content... the internet allows you to reach [that] global audience -- it gives you more reach and that's all it does.'
The problem, says Frampton, is that the market for online content had been distorted over the past few years by the fact that heavily-funded dotcoms have given content away for free in an unsustainable drive to build market share.
David Docherty, managing director of broadband at Telewest, also attributes the problems facing online content businesses in part to providers that have been giving away material for free. He says: 'We're going to have to re-educate a whole generation of consumers and providers.'
But payment mechanisms remain a moot point, with many providers turning to subscription services after the failure of micropayments systems to take off. Frampton says: 'It depends what your customer is up to and what your model is - if customers come back time and again then subscription will work. You only have to look at satellite TV.'
So will we soon expect to see the streaming of a whole range of content, with music and sports events perhaps being the obvious candidates, on a pay-per-view basis, as the norm? Well, despite the painfully slow take-up of broadband, in the UK at any rate, there's little doubt that we will see continuing experimentation as content owners look at ways of exploiting their material online.
Even at the BBC, head of new media Ashley Highfield said recently that the corporation might have to charge for access to some streamed content in the future -- a statement that caused outrage among the BBC's commercial rivals.
For MSN, events like the Elton John webcast are part of Microsoft's continuing efforts to entrench itself in the consumer side of the internet, partly by building MSN into the leading portal on the web. And it's been pretty successful at this -- according to Jupiter MMXI, MSN.com was the most popular website in June among UK internet users, attracting 6.8m users, while MSN.co.uk was in sixth place with 4.2m.
Tracy Blacher, consumer marketing manager at MSN.co.uk, says: 'We have a history of major events - the Madonna and Paul McCartney webcasts -- each of those at the time were the biggest. We'd gone as big as we could -- now we wanted to look at quality [with] limiting it to broadband being the only way to guarantee quality.'
MSN won't release audience figures for the webcast, saying that they are commercially sensitive. Blacher says: 'No-one else who does pay-per-view -- Sky, Carlton - releases numbers so we're not either. For us it was about... great quality and from that point of view it was a success.'
It must also be seen as a way of testing the waters for the premium, paid-for services that MSN is considering, so as to broaden its revenue streams beyond online advertising and sponsorship. There has been speculation that MSN might introduce a subscription service that would require that customers pay a £60 annual fee, for example.
Blacher says: 'At the moment we're not ruling anything out. We're still committed to digital marketing as a revenue model. In the future it may be that there are premium services [but] all the things that are available now will not be charged for.'
For example, says Blacher, MSN won't charge for Hotmail - but it might charge for a new premium service such as a bigger mailbox. After all, she adds, people are already paying for things such as ringtones on the internet.
And what did John get out of the webcast? Does he need the money? Was dueting with Eminem not enough to show he's moving with the times? Well, actually the answer probably lies in the fact that he has a new album out shortly, and a bit of extra publicity never goes amiss.Interested in this topic? Check out the Streaming Media Europe 2001 Entertainment conference track!