IBroadcasting -- The future of digital content distribution

Podcasting only started a few years ago but it’s now gradually gaining momentum as more people on the move and with busy lifestyles turn to small devices like the iPod to keep in touch with news, technology and general knowledge. Giorgio Ungania sheds more light on trends in podcasting.

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By  Giorgio Ungania Published  November 28, 2006

I|~||~||~|According to Wikipedia, a podcast is a multimedia file distributed over the internet for playback on mobile devices and personal computers. Podcast and podcasting are the new hype in the media industry as more and more professionals are getting the impression that a huge revolution is just behind the door. Podcasting offers production professionals an exciting new avenue to showcase their talents with minimal investment. Podcasting started around 2003 when web radios realised that they could use MP3 technology to store their programmes on a server and give listeners the opportunity to reach the content on demand through streaming or store the content on their own PC. This was a true revolution as audiences could access an enormous amount of programming on demand, regardless of their geographical position and time zone. All it needed was an internet connection, a web browser and a software MP3 player. A subsequent improvement has been the development of RSS technology. This enables users to get automatic updates to the latest podcast releases and allows them to download shows automatically. Broadcasters understood the huge potential of integrating podcasting technology with their offerrings. The BBC, for instance, which was already offering live streaming for most of its radio programmes, started riding the new technology and produced downloadable podcasts of some of their most popular shows. The real deal in podcasting technology is its portability; contents can be enjoyed anywhere through portable media players. This is a massive change as audiences are no longer physically linked to a conventional media carrier such as TV, radio or the internet, but can access programming at their convenience as long as the content is stored in their media players. Hardware manufacturers have joined the bandwagon by releasing a variety of portable media players in varying colours and shapes to suit different lifestyles. Apple, through its ipod collection started the trend; the ipod business is now responsible for 45% of the latest quarterly total revenue of Apple Computers. That comes to a whopping US $212 million in four months. Furthermore, Apple is the leading MP3 distributor with a share of 75% in the total US market. These numbers are impressive. The key to the success of the ipod operation, however, does not lie in its design or the style of the players but in their seamless integration with the iTunes Store. Started as a file management application for the ipod, iTunes is now the leading platform for licensed digital media distribution. The introduction of video support in 2005 opened up a freeway for content producers to deliver programming to new markets. ||**||II|~||~||~|Other manufacturers are not merely sitting down and watching Apple rake in the dollars. They are all looking into producing the ultimate ipod killer. Microsoft, for instance, is launching its Zune player with built-in wireless capabilities and radio this December; the equivalent of iTunes will be a site labelled Marketplace but no further details have been revealed at this stage. Creative Technology is producing a wide range of MP3 and video players connected to their Zencast media manager; it is not possible to purchase audio or video but users can subscribe to a vast free blogging and podcasting community service. Sony, which used to be the leading portable music company in the eighties has recently relaunched its walkman line with a range of MP3 players; authorised music purchasing is linked to the Sony Connect web site that, same as iTunes, is available in many countries but not accessible worldwide. Many other manufacturers produce their own range of MP3 players but they are all missing the real thing — a distribution manager that is as popular as iTunes. Media portability is attracting content producers even more than hardware and software manufacturers. The MP3 technology has completely reshaped the music industry in the past 10 years. The development of peer-to-peer technology and the file-sharing phenomenon impacted heavily on the music majors. In 1998, the total profit was US $3billion, now the numbers are less than half of that. Reluctant to lose their usual cuts on CD profit, music majors battled against peer-to-peer technology. But even if they managed to shut down Napster briefly, they realised that they would not be able to stop the file sharing evolution. Instead, they started looking into digital right management (DRM) solutions to protect their assets. The online music retailer market is divided among five major players: iTunes, eMusic, Real Rhapsody, Napster and MSN music. Each company employs a DRM system to manage their online content. iTunes sells single tracks at 99 cents and allows users to burn the track on an unlimited number of CDs and transfer to any iPod connected to the iTunes application. The restriction is that it is possible to copy playlists only seven times and the track can playback only on five computers. The bottom line is that the user does not ‘own’ the song but can buy the rights to access it. ||**||III|~||~||~|Napster, on the other side, utilises a subscription-based approach to DRM alongside permanent purchases. Users of the subscription service can download and stream an unlimited amount of music encoded to Windows Media Audio (WMA) while subscribed to the service. But as soon as the user misses a payment, the service renders all music downloaded unusable. Napster also charges users who wish to use the music on their portable device an additional US $5 per month. Furthermore, Napster requires users to pay an additional US $.99 per track to burn a track to CD or to listen to the track after the subscription expires. Although iTunes is the undisputed leader, it is interesting to know that eMusic, the second player on the chart gives the end user 100% ownership of the downloaded tracks. Apple has recently released video support in their iPod line and started selling TV shows and movies through the iTunes store. This is the true beginning of the digital media content distribution revolution as Hollywood-based production companies have realised the potential of selling products digitally using the internet. Only a few big names such as Disney, MTV and Fox have joined Apple’s solution so far but the same revolution is taking place in the music industry with audio downloads. A few companies joined iTunes at the beginning and then the rest joined the bandwagon following the huge success of the business model. The quality of video downloads may not be to DVD standards; the price may not be that appealing and the download timings may vary depending on internet bandwidth but this is just the start. In the near future, as more users come on board, the quality of the video will improve, prices will drop and most of all, it will be possible to playback content on conventional home TV systems rather than on media players and PC screens. If, on the one side, big corporations and hardware manufacturers are benefiting from this revolution, so are independent producers. Creativity can now be showcased bypassing the traditional pathways, and producers can access audiences directly. One recent example of this innovation is the LonelyGirl15 video blog on YouTube, the web site recently acquired by Google. This fictional video reached 15 millions viewers, same as the audience of the first episode of Lost season in North America. The LonelyGirl15 blog is a typical example of the potential of these new distribution mediums. Recently, video-casting has found new means even in politics when German chancellor, Angela Merkel, held her first video podcast speech and decided to use this system for her weekly talks to the nation. The Middle East response to podcasting seems much smaller in comparison but it is getting larger. Already, some publications offer small podcasts on their web sites. However, broadcasters here have been the slowest because they do not offer video podcast versions of their contents. Perhaps the only real active entity is the Dubai based Podme.org. ||**||IV|~||~||~|This site offers any enthusiastic podcaster the chance to get hosted and become part of their creative team. The scenario will radically change as soon as the Arabic speaking community gets wind of this, and this medium will begin to appeal to advertisers and producers. Of course, the biggest question mark with regards to the development of podcasting and video podcasting is that it is not a revenue-making business model yet. There are advertisements embedded in podcasts but the earnings, so far, are limited and they cover only the server hosting costs. However, one factor will change the system very rapidly in the Middle East. Through the video casting and podcasting technology, it is possible to track down exactly how many people access a posted programme. This will make the life of advertisers much easier as they will be able to rate the popularity of specific shows and address their investments accordingly. Even IBC this year has podcasts of its seminars on its web site, www.ibc.org. Podcasting has become so popular that recently, a Podcast and New Media Expo was hosted in California. The event saw hardware manufacturers, pro audio and video makers and new media content creators gather under one roof and discuss the future of the business. Already, microphones and audio software manufacturers have found a new business segment in the thousands of podcast producers around the world looking for better sonic quality in their shows. As producers are typically producing their shows on their home PC or laptops, it is interesting to notice how they are getting close to professional technologies. Podcasters are getting familiar with audio compressors, condenser microphones, multi track audio editors and audio plug ins. At the end of the day, it is pretty simple to plug in a microphone on a PC, record a speech and export it to an MP3 file. However, producers who are making the real difference in podcasting are not the ones with simply good ideas but the ones that produce professional sounding programmes with cutting edge content. It will also be intriguing to see how video podcasting evolves in terms of content creation as opposed to producing work for conventional TV or radio. Producers will need to start ‘thinking for the Web’ as content will need to be made compact, interesting and light in terms of file size. Although one cannot yet predict how the podcasting industry will evolve, it will be fantastic to see how for the first time audiovisuals will exploit the power of the internet. ||**||

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