All Hands Off the Keyboard!

Pseudo's and DEN's Biggest Mistake? Asking People to Stop Typing and Watch

The recent demise of the Web-based television companies Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) and summoned the business media the way the stench of death attracts vultures.

The diagnostic mastications concentrated on CEO musical chairs, technology gaps, cosmic burnrates, and the failure of these dotcoms to create breakout stars with mainstream media acceptance. The problems with DEN and Pseudo were business problems, squawked the vultures, but a Web-based television network with a proper business model would work just fine.

Utterly lacking in the postmortems was the following suggestion: Web-based television makes about as much sense as radio-based television.

Web-based television makes about as much sense as radio-based television.
illustration: Limbert Fabian
Web-based television makes about as much sense as radio-based television.

Wannabe entrepreneurs of Web TV would do well to learn from the 35-year-old concepts of media guru Marshall McLuhan. In his overcited but ultimately underread text Understanding Media, McLuhan devised a relative scale of media heat. Hot media are those that provide high-definition information to a single sense. Radio is hot, because it pours crystal-clear data into the ears. Cool media are less intense, but appeal to more senses. Television, which engages the eyes with constantly redrawn, dim images and the ears with tinny audio, is cool. Yet in the polar regions of the Internet, where viewers are apt to be doing five things at once rather than leaning toward the speaker to hear a news bulletin, even icy webcasts are too hot.

DEN and Pseudo were hardly the first to get stung by doomed attempts to mix hot media with cool. Designed to carry hot images, mechanical televisions were themselves cooler than cathode-ray televisions—too cool, in fact, to survive. Sometimes called "radio vision," these now antiquated rigs were basically large radios equipped with neon tubes, spinning picture discs, and a small viewing screen. Resolution was terrible, with many sets drawing a picture comprising fewer than 50 lines. Quality ranged from mere silhouettes to vibrant color pictures.

With the same naive optimism that drove the suits of DEN and Pseudo, Charles Jenkins set out to shill mechanical TVs. By 1928, Jenkins had sold several thousand sets and begun operating the television station W3XK in Maryland, but radio vision just wasn't a viable medium. The quality of the images was poor, programming was too rarely scheduled, and the pictures didn't add much to the experience of "looking in," as viewing was called. Advertisers didn't see a market, and a few thousand hobbyists couldn't support the new medium. Mechanical TV died, in spite of the fact that radio plus images would seem intuitively to provide a media experience superior to that of mere radio—just as a high-cost Web show was supposed to be more attractive than plain text and blocky graphics on a page.

Now Web-based television, at least in the mold of DEN and Pseudo, has also given up the ghost, largely because of the same problems that plagued mechanical TVs.

The images from their webcasts were even smaller than ones on the dumpy television screens found in overstuffed Manhattan studio apartments. Resolution was low, the sites difficult to navigate, programs time-consuming to download, and after waiting to get the show, viewers were greeted with not-very-different-from-television television. Interactivity and the ability to send e-mail to the talent couldn't overcome the fact that Web TV is just too cool for overblown shows. Compared to Pseudo, even basic cable is sizzling hot, and the average motion picture is an information supernova.

There is a working model for Web-based television, one that Pseudo and DEN ignored. Webcams, which run the gamut from voyeur-cams tucked in college coeds' dorm rooms to cameras aimed at fish tanks and African watering holes, are the future of Web television. Webcams are very cool, in a media sense. Many of them simply offer still images, with text (captions, chat sessions with the people on camera, archives of old footage) or occasional streaming media. Web TV, done the lo-fi way, is as cool as the Internet itself; by accepting that limit, do-it-yourself webcasters survive and thrive.

While watching one of these guerrilla webcams, a viewer can open up other browser windows and shop, chat, or read something. The viewer can send and receive e-mail, type a term paper, or play a game. Applications like multiuser games, instant messaging, and Napster can run while one flips through images or watches a webcam picture refresh. The Internet offers so many forms of information that any attempt to stanch this flow by demanding total concentration, the way DEN and Pseudo did, just overheats the medium.

Independent channels like ARTelevision ( understand how cool a medium the Web is. The site is run by a trio of artists who toil outside the NYC gallery system. They eschew the celebrity racket by using pseudonyms and the conceits of DEN/Pseudo by embracing Web-based television as its own medium. The artists, mimi, art, and sus, charge to view their programs, sell the detritus of their own lives to fund ARTelevision, and embrace the coolness of the Web. "Even though we do single-image-at-a-time performances, they are live events, coming from our home studio every night," art explains. "The computer is the television screen, but ARTelevision is not 'television.' Television is still its own medium, so there is no attempt to make ARTelevision act in any way like a television show, series, or event."

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