Web sites offering live video of President Clinton's grand jury testimony on the Internet Monday morning got the deluge of visitors they wanted, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of video software downloads and as much hype in the media as they could have wished for.
Unfortunately, users tuning into what passes for live television on the Internet were likely to experience grainy images and various glitches caused by Internet congestion. "Internet video is like a dancing bear," said Bill Bass, analyst with Forrester Research. "The interesting thing is that it can dance, not how well it can dance. When a normal user comes in, thinking it's going to look like television, there's a mismatch" between expectations and reality.
It's become a truism that big news events drive users online, where they expect to find information and media on breaking events as they happen. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales; the release of Kenneth Starr's Clinton report; and now the Webcast of Clinton's testimony have all made high-water marks for news sites and even general interest Internet hubs such as Yahoo! and Netscape's Netcenter.
But while users know pretty much what to expect from a news story on the Web, observers said many might be surprised to discover that streaming video -- the technology that makes live broadcasts possible over the Internet -- is closer to an animated postage stamp than it is to regular TV. "If this was the first time someone was experiencing video on the Internet, it probably was not the best day to do it," said Greg Makush, product manager for Real Broadcast Network, which hosted the video for many news sites. "There was a much greater amount of Internet congestion today ... that results in slower frame rates ... and the experience is not as high as it could be."
That said, plenty of people showed up to see what all the fuss was about, and that can't be bad for the streaming media industry, observers said. RealNetworks, whose RealMedia format holds about 85 percent of the streaming media market, said it was approaching double the typical number of downloads of its player Monday, with more than 200,000 copies transferred. Companies hosting the video broadcast reported record audiences. Broadcast.com reported a company record with 50,000 users simultaneously viewing the video stream. InterVU also set a record for itself with over 18,000 simultaneous viewers. InterVU said it delivered video to a total of 300,000 users during the day.
Broadcast.com and InterVU both host video for news sites including CNN and ABC News. "Streaming media has arrived," said Mark Bretl, RealNetworks' vice president for the media systems division. And while the quality might not be exactly hi-fi, streaming video offers certain advantages you can't get with television -- namely the ability to retrieve whichever part you want on demand.
Most of the news sites offered on-demand archives of the testimony immediately after the live broadcast, and some sites indexed the video by subject. Users could view the entire four-hour interrogation or simply jump to a particular piece. "The on-demand aspect is very compelling," said Patrick Keane, senior analyst with analyst Jupiter Communications. "On television, despite the fact that they're going to be playing it ad nauseam, you might have to wait a while before you can see a clip of the president. On the Internet, you can go and access the video whenever you want it."
But he added that the only thing that will really boost Web video into the mainstream is "technological advance, and deployment, and so on. The Starr tapes are not the next big push."
The Internet in general, in the meantime, handled the flood of users without many problems, with congestion causing only minor delays, according to experts.