June , 2000 | Comments (0) – Report an Error Share on facebook Share on email Share on twitter Share on favorites More Sharing Services

Just off camera, beside CTV’s national news desk, a row of new computers lines the front wall of the sleek, open-concept studio. As we walk along beside them, Henry Eaton, CTV’s vice-president of strategic planning, explains how 25 new, full-time staff are preparing to launch the online component of Newsnet – the network’s 24-hour headline news service.

Near the Newsnet studio, anchor Ken Shaw is preparing for a newscast. He goes over his copy and checks out information on a monitor embedded in the anchor desk, hidden away from the camera. Digital media has already changed the network behind the scenes; Shaw tells me he sometimes announces breaking news from reliable online services like CNN.com, straight from his laptop to the air. Now digital media is set to transform the network on a more visible level. “In a few months,” says Shaw, “you won’t recognize us.”

CTV’s new site is set to take viewers far beyond the ho-hum news offerings currently available in Canada. Apart from providing users with advanced navigability and broadcast-quality video on demand, Newsnet will be the first in this country – and likely the world – to offer video-dominated content as well as compatibility with WebTV. In WebTV, Internet information is routed though phone lines or cable for display on a TV screen. Those features may not sound wildly impressive to the uninitiated, but they represent the future of information technology, a future the IT industry is banking on. Newsnet is the most ambitious project of its kind ever to be undertaken by a broadcaster on the World Wide Web and it just may change the way others deliver journalism online. After years of procrastination, CTV’s brain trust finally decided to meet the challenges of the digital future face-on, jumping light-years ahead of the competition. In doing so, it will redefine how Canadians view broadcast news. For the first time, they’ll have the choice of watching TV journalism online when they want. That’s a far cry from the present state of Canadian broadcasting online – which is still largely in its infancy. So far, it has been limited to text with still images and occasional streaming video samples. (With streaming video, users don’t have to wait to download a large file before seeing video. Instead, video is sent in a continuous stream and is played as it arrives) Even CTV’s online news presence has offered nothing more than a token page filled with digital head-shots of Lloyd Roberston and Sandie Rinaldo.

But when it launches this September, Newsnet will set a new standard for showcasing news online. The site will primarily offer video content, though the network is also working on a strategic deal with one of Canada’s major newspaper chains (the chain is yet to be announced) that will provide supplemental text linked to the stories.

Henry Eaton’s demeanor is casual, but he talks excitedly and at length, like a six-year-old showing off a new toy in his room. We sit down to go through the features of the site, which is still in the testing phase. The idea behind all the technology, he explains, is to provide a richly interactive, video-driven environment that will put viewers in control of the news they consume. On their computers or WebTV sets, viewers will get an interlaced multimedia package where a main story, related video streams, text information, hyperlinks and ads are all pre-linked together – ready to be manipulated as the user wishes. If you’re a sports fan, for instance, you can configure Newsnet’s main page to load up stories tailored to your interests. Likewise for business, entertainment and politics. What sets this apart from other broadcast websites is that viewers will be able to manipulate video information as easily as the text they’ve been manipulating for years.

Newsnet’s site is divided into live video streams, a navigation bar, a table of links and a headline ticker – all of which can be customized by the user. Click on the footage of civil unrest in the Middle East to the right of Lloyd Robertson’s head and the site will take you to another stream with more video on that story. Click on the stock ticker scrolling below Robertson and Newsnet will whisk you away to more visual information on that stock from the TSE. Online video feed will be taken directly from Newsnet’s 24-hour TV news channel as well as CTV’s national TV news and affiliate station broadcasts. “We are the video news kings,” says Eaton, “and we’re going to import that onto the Web.”

The one question Eaton won’t answer is how much this endeavour will cost. Toronto-based e-business consultant Jim Adams estimates that setting up this kind of site could run anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million. Eaton acknowledges that the network isn’t expecting much financially from the page in the first few years but realizes it’s time to break into new media. “We’re going to develop out the site,” says Eaton, “and we’re not going to see any profit from it, but it’s something we feel we should do.”

The numbers for viewership, however, look good. When Newsnet launches online, some 500,000 Canadian households who already have broadband connections will be able to access the news site. Broadband allows information to pass through the technological equivalent of a fat digital pipe, instead of the thin straw that existed before. Such high-speed connections are a prerequisite for effectively streaming Newsnet’s video. For the other five million households (Canada has half the cable Internet users in the world) whose dial-in modems run at 28,800, 33,600 or 56,600 bits per second, the video streams will appear choppy – like a string of slides changing a couple of times a second. But the number of broadband users is increasing rapidly. In 1996, Rogers began offering cable-modem Internet access that runs 100 times faster than a 28.8 kps modem. Then, last year, Sympatico introduced ADSL technology, which allows its subscribers to surf the Net at 30 times the speed of a conventional modem and talk on the phone simultaneously. As these broadband connections become more popular, workplace computer networks that are attached to the net through T1 connections (which offer 1,000 times the speed of a dial-up modem) are also becoming more widespread. Indeed, research has shown that people are most likely to surf the Net for news while at work.

No one can be certain when broadband will hit a critical mass, as TV did in early 1960s, and allow separate media to converge. When that convergence happens, it will dissolve the distinction between TV and the Internet. Broadcasters and webmasters are looking forward to that day, when one wire will connect various devices, like phones, televisions and computers, to the Net.

Until recently, there has been a lack of high-quality broadband content on the Net, providing little incentive for home net users to pay the roughly extra $20 a month for high-speed access. That began changing in 1999 with a surge in the number of Internet radio stations, web-only sitcoms and talk shows and streamed video newscasts. America On-Line’s January buy-out of Time Warner Inc. will accelerate the process, since this new company will have the resources to make slickly-packaged broadband entertainment and news programming – upping the stakes for major media organizations everywhere. Meanwhile, communications giant BCE’s takeover of CTV will give Newsnet more clout.

At this point though, Canadian broadcasters online are staring into a black hole – no one knows what the audience will demand of TV news once all media enters the home through a single digital pipe. Hedging bets on technology like WebTV, CTV is hoping to capitalize on a booming digital culture. Indeed, even before widespread broadband penetration paves the way for convergence, Newsnet may be able to start building a strong viewership with Canadians who already have high-speed hookups.

Broadcasting online needs to stand out in the global information jungle. Newsnet may help TV journalism find its niche on the Web. With the proliferation of specialty cable channels, home digital satellite services and websites, media landscape has been turned on its head. During the past 10 years, networks have shifted their attention from broadcasting to narrowcasting. In Canada, two national networks have had to service the interests of all English-speaking viewers. Narrowcasting focuses content on very specific interests or demographics, giving viewers a wide range of options – from Home & Garden Television to Space: The Imagination Station.

“The difficulty has been that TV is a generic product,” says Mark Schneider, host of CTV’s Digital Desk, who also sits on the new media advisory board of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. He’s talking about the perils of 21st century broadcasting. “It’s like throwing a handful of darts at a dart board. If you are really good at identifying viewer interest and demographics, you might be able to turn one or two of those darts into guided missiles. But we haven’t figured out how to deliver these products online. It’s a huge intellectual jump that not many have made yet.”

On the Net, competition is even more fierce than it is on TV. Our national news websites – whether generated by newspapers, TV networks or Web portals like Sympatico or CANOE – must compete with each other. National sites also compete with regional ones, which have better local news, and international news organizations, which have much larger budgets. “The audience has become untethered from the TV,” says Schneider. “We’re struggling to keep up.”

If networks are to truly alter the media landscape in Canada, he says, they must provide a sense of discovery beneath the flashy surface they hope to wow us with. “I’d like to see more humanity on the Net, more souls. Who are these people behind the news?” adds Schneider. Slick packaging and dynamic navigating may outglitter TV, but a site must aim for imaginative, in-depth reporting if it hopes to lure Canadians away from TV. “We must offer a portal by which people can influence the news agenda. We must create a door to people who are programming these TV sites. I’d like to see a news website where every reporter’s face, e-mail and biography are posted so you can see what story that person is working on and what it means to them. Everyday people should be able to see the guts of the news business.”

But all this still lies ahead. Amidst the recent hype about streaming video and broadband, many new media content developers have forgotten about the Internet’s potential as a two-way medium between consumers and producers of the news. Technological bells and whistles are just the beginning. True change will happen only when someone figures out how to use them effectively and meaningfully. In the meantime, Newsnet is at least on the right wavelength