July 1, 1997

Documentarians and Cyberspace: Some Possibilities

Imagine this: You've spent the last three years of your life toiling nights and weekends on your pet project. Finally, after mortgaging your house and maxing out your credit cards, you've finished the piece you always wanted to produce. But instead of shopping it to HBO, or hoping P.O.V. might have a slot for it, you upload it to a documentary repository site hosted by an Internet Service Provider. With a little promotion and a bit of press, 500 people a day "stop by" to watch.

Believe it or not?

Believe it. The scenario described above isn't reality quite yet. But the ability of the World Wide Web to handle sound and video has grown exponentially over the last two years with the advent of new hardware and software designed to sup­port such applications.

It wasn't long ago that Web watchers began to talk of a fusion between televi­sions and computers. They painted a portrait in which television merged with the personal computer, or vice versa, leaving one appliance instead of two. It may not actually be that one day we'll throw away our televisions and watch our favorite programs on our Macintoshes— instead the change will be more subtle.

"Full motion, high quality video requires two things," according to a prominent official at Xing Technology. "Firstly, the ability to deliver a large amount of digital data quickly; and secondly, a delivery method that is reliable and does not lose or corrupt the data as it's being delivered."

But on the Web today, those require­ments are not yet being met very well. And that's just what Xing Technology (pmronounced "Zing"— www.xingtech.com) wants to change. Their software, Streamworks, allows delivery via the Web of video and audio to the desktop computer.

But video requires enormous amounts of data that is at the mercy of our slow phone lines and modems. Try watching a movie clip at 28.8 baud and you'll get the picture—or not. And will there eventually be a high speed ISDN or ADSL line coming into your home to quicken the pace? Not likely.

But wait. There's already a high speed communication line that probably is coming into your house. Cable. One tiny strand of coaxial cable that instantaneously carries over 50 channels into your home at any moment. And this is the subtle change. You won't combine two viewing monitors into one: you'II combine two communications tools—television and the Internet—into one coaxial cable.

It's easier said than done. Cable tele­vision is great for sending information "downstream." But the Internet is completely interactive, requiring information to be sent "upstream" also. Cable modems, a new device that will allow television and the Internet to share the same path through cyberspace, will provide the answer. They offer full motion video right to your computer, served by the World Wide Web, the incredible cyber­scape where a documentary filmmaker can have just as much presence on the playing field as Sony or Paramount.

The whole concept of cable modem delights cable operators, and horrifies the phone companies, who thought that they would be the natural heirs to the digital communications fortune.

There are some "false positives" in the market already. You may have seen WebTV at your local Circuit City. It's the Web on your TV, but is doesn't utilize any of the cable modem technology described above. Instead, it allows you to interface a normal phone line with a 28.8 modem with your television. It's great for people who can't afford a computer but still want access to the Internet. You're required to use WebTV as your Internet service provider—no choices like Netcom, AOL, or MCI. It may seem limited, but don't count WebTV out. In April it was purchased by Microsoft.

Other software on the Web currently supporting video is RealVideo, by the same people who brought you RealAudio ( www.realaudio.com ). This software uses a process called "streaming" in which data flows in a series of packets, one behind the other, which presents the user with the illusion that audio or video is happening in real time. It works better for audio. Remember, video requires huge amounts of digital information. So a 30 frame per second image translates to much less over a 28.8 modem, creating a jerky, out-of sync picture. Cable modems, in the end, promise to change all that.

So let's say the technology is on its way. Now what? That's where producers and distributors come in: content. Sites are already online that give a glimpse of what the future may hold. The American Film Institute, for instance, has been transmit­ting famous silent pictures since the beginning of the year. They're using "streaming" technology that has allowed users to view Charlie Chaplin's film The Rink and Buster Keaton's The Boat, all served by AFI's web site. With an ISDN line, you can enjoy the films at a full 30 frame per second rate. But a slower modem can have you creep along at as little as 7 frames per second.

Still, the implications are enormous. NASA now has a site providing video streaming of space shuttle flights in action. And you can even watch the Nightly Busi­ness Report as served by the Web.

Along with recent steps toward digital television, the explosion of cyber­space continues to offer a sense that, like our television forefathers, we are at the leading edge of new technology that someday will revolutionize the world in the same way that TV has.

The future is almost here.

New Bookmarks

Here are a couple of Websites that I can no longer live without: www.allmovie.com is a comprehensive movie site that has replaced, for me, my annual purchase of a yearly movie bible. Allmovie.com is a meticulously researched site that can be searched by actor, title, or just about any above-the-line or craft production person­nel. It includes entries on hundreds of documentary films and their producers, includ­ing old friends like David Wolper and his gang (Mel Stuart, Bill Kronick, Marshall Flaum, et al) . It's fun to see Mel Stuart's name and career flash before you on the World Wide Web.

Ultimate TV (http://listings.ultimateTV.com/) is another one-stop resource for television information on the web. Schedules, ratings, program descriptions, production personnel and job listings can all be found here. Want information on science programs or informational shows? UltimateTV 's search engine allows you to break down your information to specific genre.


MARK FINKELPEARL is a supervising producer for National Geographic Explorer and series producer for On Assignment for National Geographic Television, in Washington, DC.