The Webcast ratings game

Webcasting has it's always been a big part of the promise of the Internet, but never lived up to its billing. The sight of jerky video frames in stamp-sized windows on computer screens has given it the reputation of a perennial disappointment.

That soon could end, as boosts in broadband connections and advances in digital compression — combined with big leaps in video production technology — take online video to the edge of the Internet mainstream.

Government has noticed. State and local agencies are beginning to incorporate Webcasts in their online offerings, including online video coverage of state and local legislatures and council meetings.

However, one of the more surprising developments is that, at least initially, the real demand for Webcasting is coming from government employees, not citizens.

"We didn't get a lot of positive interest from citizens saying they wanted Webcasting," said Michael Armstrong, the chief information officer for the city of Des Moines, Iowa (www.ci.des-moines.ia.us), which began Webcasts in January. "It was more a case of a negative demand, in that they complained about having to be cable subscribers if they wanted to watch council meetings."

City employees, on the other hand, quickly latched onto the concept. Instead of having to take hours out of their time to attend meetings, Armstrong said, they can now sit at their desks to watch meetings while still getting work done.

Cupertino, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, began Webcasting in December and also has already seen a big demand from its staff for having video multicast over the city's intranet.

"It's proven to be an especial advantage in the area of training, because people can now go to [archived] training videos whenever they feel they need to," said Pete Coglianese, program director for the City Channel, Cupertino's government access cable channel (www.cupertino.org/update/hall/citychannel.htm).

"We also expect to use the system to provide viewings for in-house meetings, where someone such as the city manager can address all of the employees without them having to go to a particular meeting room," he said.

Good Ratings

Agency Web sites, of course, are not the only source for government Webcasts, nor even the most popular.

C-SPAN, the "grandaddy" of government cable TV providers, has seen a tenfold increase in its Webcast traffic since the beginning of 2000. C-SPAN, which provides video and radio coverage of Congress, simulcasts at least some of that coverage over the Internet through live video streams and offers about 2,000 hours of "on-demand" archived footage.

"The growth of Webcasting has been far greater than we expected," said Christopher Long, director of new media at C-SPAN. "It's been driven by the penetration of broadband into institutional settings, places such as offices, educational establishments, government agencies and so on. The public affairs world has become incredibly wired at broadband speeds."

It's also been driven by events such as the Monica Lewinsky affair and President Clinton's impeachment, and by more recent fare such as the 2000 presidential election, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Enron collapse. All were major events that drove people to the Web in significant numbers, Long said.

"We saw big spikes in traffic at those times," he said. "There's always some retreat when the event dies down, but [the numbers] have never retreated back to where they were before."

At the state and local level, it's harder to judge the potential audience, but TV providers are increasingly convinced that there is a substantial market for Webcasting based on their more limited experience.

Michigan Government Television (www.mgtv.org), for example, is the public affairs initiative of that state's cable industry and was launched in July 1996. It is modeled directly on C-SPAN, funded by the cable TV industry and operating independently to provide coverage of Michigan's government.

Last year, when the Michigan Senate for the first time expelled one of its members, the Senate staff members that run the TV cameras there also decided to stream the proceedings live over the Web.

No detailed traffic figures were available, according to Bill Trevarthen, executive director of MGTV, "but we know from the many comments made to us that there was a big Web audience for the event, when people didn't have access to cable."

There is no doubt that Webcasting is no longer a minor player in the way government is covered, Trevarthen said, and as high-speed Internet becomes more prevalent in Michigan and the quality of Web-based video improves he expects Webcasting will become even more important.

"There is nothing like TV to cover [government] sessions, and Webcasting only gives this coverage even more impact," he said.

A No-Brainer

For cities and counties, it's more a matter of faith that the audience is there.

Some projects are on fairly solid ground. In Cupertino, for example, about 95 percent of the residents have Internet access and a recent survey showed that the Internet is one of the primary means by which people get their information about the city.

Given that and given the rise in broadband connection services such as high-speed cable and DSL (digital subscriber line), "We thought Webcasting was a technology ready to go," Coglianese said,

Those who have been delivering video over the Web for some time believe their early faith has been justified. Officials in Lincoln, Neb. (interlinc.ci.lincoln.ne.us) decided "early on" that Webcasting would be a part of delivering services to citizens, said Terry Lowe, Lincoln's systems project supervisor.

"Lincoln is in the middle of a large rural area, and we can't broadcast to everyone on cable channels," he said. "So, if someone from these rural areas wanted to see a commissioner's meeting they actually had to come into town to do so. We've been using the Internet since 1995 to deliver services to citizens and video streaming has always been seen as a part of that, whenever we could get the capability of delivering it."

What makes Webcasting a no-brainer for many people is that it's an inexpensive and reliable technology to deploy, particularly where the video production capability already exists, which is the case in many governments today.

Lincoln, for example, spent $10,000 to put its Webcast system in place, and that runs around the clock with only the occasional need to reboot when a connection to a server is lost. Cupertino spent $20,000 to add a Webcasting component to its existing video system that allows for sophisticated multimedia presentations that synchronize static text, image and graphic content to the streaming video portions of a Webcast.

The only real constraint is the available bandwidth. Multicasting internally to government employees over Ethernet-based intranets is not usually that big of a deal, but external videocasts over the Internet typically take place between 80 kilobits/sec and 150 kilobits/sec per video stream.

For systems that have between 100 and 200 streams available at any one time — the current maximum capacities of most government Webcasts — bandwidth needs can quickly build up.

Many governments have opted to get around this constraint by outsourcing the actual Webcasts to bandwidth-rich organizations.

In the end, Webcasting is increasingly being seen as an effective way to deliver government services, and one that probably doesn't need a lot of debate.

The city of Minneapolis (www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us), for example, has been Webcasting since November 2000 despite no obvious initial demand from its citizens.

"Since no huge upfront investments were required, it was more a matter of 'let's just do it,'" said Roger Downey, Minneapolis' director of information access. "The decision was more of a gut-level thing than as a result of any formal analysis, but I think the system has met our expectations. I think we made the right decision in not over-analyzing things, and just going ahead and doing it."

For a pair of case studies about Webcasting, see these related stories:

"Washington meets information demand"

"Webcast marketing: Pros and cons"

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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