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Review: CNN Pipeline

For the true news junkie, nothing satisfies the craving like 24-7 news coverage. But for those for whom even that isn’t enough–and for the casual viewer willing to trade a few dollars a month for access to breaking news–CNN Pipeline offers an unmatched streaming video news experience.

Launched on December 5, 2005, CNN Pipeline is available in 25 countries and shows various CNN content live--in some cases, directly from satellite downlinks. Video can be viewed via a Web site (www.cnnpipeline.com), for those who want to casually browse and view in Internet Explorer, Firefox, or other familiar browsers (Macintosh users, who are limited to web-browser-only access, must also download Windows Media 9 Player for OS X).

For true "power viewing," CNN recommends downloading the standalone Pipeline application. This application installs itself with options to display video breaking news alerts and live news alerts, which allow viewers to focus their attention on other computing tasks but remain informed about important events.

The Pipeline interface is fairly intuitive, and can be set in one of three primary modes: video only, which displays only the video content, at approximately 1/4 screen size; mini mode, which shrinks the video window to about 1/8 screen size; and the more powerful main mode, which provides a large video window surrounded by information about other news options: up to four live feeds, on-demand "now in the news" packages to show what is currently playing, a schedule of upcoming programs, a "just in" section for breaking news, and a feature called "your voice" that allows viewers to post comments about particular stories.

Live feeds and on-demand packages (2-3 minute news segments) mimic what one would see working behind the scenes in a news organization: while some are streaming equivalents of watching the same news channel on cable, such as CNN International, others are raw satellite downlinks with wild or ambient sound and no reporter commentary.

"Today, the CNN.com user not only can read a story and view video on demand, but with CNN Pipeline, also can take control of daily news clips, several live streams of news and even video from CNN's extensive archives," said Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services. "CNN Pipeline creates an added dimension to online news, offering an experience that is even more relevant, credible and catered specifically to the user's needs."

The system, less than a month old, still has some quirks. For instance, the Mac browser-based version (which uses the Windows Media 9 plug-in for OS X) at first didn’t recognize that the plug-in was available to Safari, although the test file did play back. When a stream was chosen, however, neither the plug-in nor the standalone Windows Media 9 Player for OS X responded properly to streams. The Windows application has a few quirks as well, with the images in the feed windows strobing or failing to appear while video played in the large window, and video in the main mode exhibiting green or yellow horizontal bands that change hue over time when viewing the CNN International live feed.

Even with these quirks, though, CNN Pipeline is attractive in the area that matters most: price. U.S. viewers have three payment options: a $.99 one-day pass, a $2.95 monthly option, and a $24.95 annual subscription. The price is compelling enough for the average viewer who doesn’t have access to TV during the day, wants to keep abreast of breaking news, and doesn’t want to go through the multiple steps normally required to view multiple video clips from a news Web site.

"Many times when trying to showcase multiple channels of content, the navigation can be very cumbersome," says Dan Rayburn, streaming industry consultant and executive VP of StreamingMedia.com. "CNN's pipeline product does a good job of laying out the content so that it is easy to navigate and allows you to see what the content is about before you watch it."

Initial users agree; while a significant number of responders to blogs about the CNN Pipeline wished the service were free and a number pined for ESPN at this price, several users also pointed out that CNN "got it" by offering live commercial-free feeds at a price that was considered "pocket change."

"Would all of you guys who want to see this free be willing to watch the feeds interspersed with commercials?" asked blog responder Fantt at dig.com. "Is $3/month really that big of a deal breaker? The very fact that CNN did not decided to charge upwards of $15 per month is evidence to me that they DO get it. This isn't just canned content; it's live stuff that's going on right now. I'm not aware of anywhere else on the Internet to get high-quality broadband feeds like this for free, much less for $3/month or $25/year."

CNN personnel choose what is shown on the four live feeds; recent instances include multiple camera angles of a national security confrontation in Miami, as well as simultaneous feeds of a bank robbery in one state and a rescue in another. For news junkies, being able to constantly monitor four feeds on CNN Pipeline might just be as close to mainlining as one can get.

A free month-long trial is available on the Web site, www.cnnpipeline.com.

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