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All Hands Off the Keyboard!

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

The recent demise of the Web-based television companies Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) and Pseudo.com 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.

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 (www.artelevision.com) 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."  

Instead, we see the artists' personal lives, their bodies, their personas, real and manufactured, one frame at a time. And it is compelling in a way a three-act sitcom can never be. Slower and dreamier than regular broadcast TV, ARTelevision provides enough visual and temporal space to breathe. There's an intimacy with the images that only a cool medium, one that pushes the audience to fill in the blanks, can create.

Webcasts may be somewhat like television, but that doesn't mean TV as we know it is suitable for the Web. It only means viewers, venture capitalists, and voyeurs tend to label any set of moving images television. "I think ARTelevision is perfect as a name," sus says, "since we as a culture are consumed by the tube whether it be on the computer or on the television itself."


DEN and Pseudo were right about one thing, though: Consumption is the key. But ARTelevision outperforms the hot dotcoms here too, accomplishing something the stock-option set never could—staying solvent. ARTelevision receives about 500,000 page views a month; its online store, which sells virtually anything seen on any of the ARTelevision transmissions, makes enough money to keep ARTelevision going. Venture-capitalist-funded dotcoms, with their bombast and hype, cannot compete with the grassroots Web television efforts when it comes to developing a relationship between viewer and audience. ARTelevision shuns the VCs and the foundations to appeal directly to the audience.

"ARTelevision is, among other things, our life. . . . Parts, pieces, and artifacts of our life are some of our artwork," art says. "Karen Finley? It would have been better for her to sell yams than to accept money from the NEA." With the help of donations, ARTelevision actually makes a profit.

If there were many differences between Pseudo and ARTelevision, there was little difference between Pseudo and mainstream television, even when the dotcom and the networks tackled the same subjects. In the weeks before its sudden demise, Pseudo made much fanfare over its coverage of this year's Democratic and Republican national conventions, with reporters like George associate editor Amy Blumenfeld and assistant editor Christina Valhouli.

Looking back, Blumenfeld says that Pseudo's convention coverage, which could have been groundbreaking and unpredictable, was at best typical and at worst full of glitches. What Pseudo promoted as cutting-edge interactivity, she says, was in fact already offered by national TV news programs and even by some local affiliates. And the networks' instant systems probably worked better, too. Blumenfeld received "no feedback from friends and family, even though many tried to log on," she says. "Even friends with sophisticated computer systems had trouble getting on the site and were unable to watch and participate."

Valhouli thinks some of the coverage of the conventions was a bit different, but only in the most superficial ways. "I was on a panel with an Irish political consultant, so we were slugging back beers as we debated," Valhouli says. "Obviously you can't do that on network TV! The tone was also saucier. For example, when the Pseudo producer asked me why Hillary had a more prominent speaking role than Lazio, I replied, 'Because she's sleeping with the president!' "

Pseudo unleashed the interactive power of the Web with an instant poll: Were Hillary and Bill still sleeping together? The consensus: No. Is this worth the wait, and the expense, of Pseudo? The consensus: No. Pseudo was too cool to compete with television, but too hot for the Web.


Pseudo's coverage of the political conventions wasn't qualitatively different from that of TV news, and in a medium cooler than television, the same old approach proved deadly. According to the theory of hot and cool media, precision, detail, and rational discourse are best conveyed with relatively hot media like public radio. Simple directness, eye-catching but uncomplicated visuals, and emotional appeal are best conveyed with the coolness of the evening news. Given that feature reporting requires a hot medium, why was Pseudo serving a cold dish of convention fare? Only the people most interested in in-depth coverage of the conventions and participation in that coverage would take the time to navigate Pseudo's Web site, but they weren't even rewarded with a different take on the political issues.

Other shows from DEN and Pseudo suffered from the same problems. When Pseudo presented live hip-hop and house performances with a stage full of MCs on the mike, it tried to bottle hot programs for a cool medium—and failed. Why would anyone watch DEN and Pseudo when decades-old television technology did a better job? For no reason at all, it turns out.  

There will be a future for Web-based television, but first, shows have to get much cooler. Few shows are chillier than the one produced by elly. Like the folks at ARTelevision, she avoids both celebrity and capitalization; she won't publicize her last name, but she will keep her cams running at www.elly.org and let the world into her life. One of the more famous "camgirls," she doesn't strip for the audience or charge memberships, but she still manages to get 1500 hits a day when the cams are running full-time.

"Once you start charging a 'member' fee, you are obligated to provide something to people who've given you money," elly says. "At that point it becomes a service, instead of a hobby or a gift of expression I give to random Internet passersby. I don't like the goods-for-cash idea on cams. I am not goods. I do not want cash."

Other camgirls, like Jenni of the infamous Jennicam.com, pay themselves salaries, says elly, who claims to be content with the occasional gift or random deposit of money into her accounts. More important are the personal connections she makes with the anonymous viewers. "I've had people send me their entire journals, or write me long, entertaining mail," she says. "I've flown out a couple of cam fans after talking to them for a long time and becoming friends. I recently went to visit a girl in Australia who was originally a completely anonymous cam fan." And all because of a handful of still images refreshed once a minute.

Grassroots webcammers go with the momentum of the medium. Not much happens on webcams because very little needs to happen; viewers have plenty of ways to fill in information gaps, and have plenty of other things to do while sound and images load.

DEN and Pseudo made a mistake when they took an "all hands off the keyboard" approach, asking viewers to stop everything else to watch. The Internet is an absolutely frigid medium, in which the end user is not a recipient of media messages, but a participant in them. When webheads log in, they are ready to work their keyboards and mice; they are there to surf, not just stare at a screen. Television as we knew it won't work on the Web. Ironically, the fleeting visuals and inexplicable bursts of information from the mechanical TVs of the 1920s are far better suited for Web-based TV, where they are just cool enough. Web television won't succeed until a dead medium rises from the grave. On sites around the world, a new form of television is humming along, waiting to be reborn.


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