Casting the Net
By Marc Savlov
JUNE 21, 1999: There will come a day, not too long from now, when that bulky JVC idiot box that's the main focal point for your living room will be obsolete -- or, at the very least, a wholly changed beast. Network television, buffeted by increasing inroads being made by cable systems and the Internet, is in dire straits, coughing up the proverbial last gasp. You can hear the dry clank of traditional media skeletons rattling just around the corner. "Convergence" is the word on everybody's lips these days.
To that end, Austin-based InterneTV, http://www.internetv.com, the first of the Web-based Netcasters, is on the move, beefing up its original programming with the release of the Austin-shot short film Bartenders, a 32-minute comic meditation on the lives and loves of the staff at a local bar. This is old ground for the guys behind InterneTV, Rob Campanell and Jay Ashcraft, who have already premiered three other made-for-Webcast short films, from the young-ravers-in-love hijinks of Chemical Generation to Austin, their first collaboration with local film community alum Tara Veneruso (Janis Joplin Slept Here), which debuted in the fall of 1997.
Ostensibly providing everything from streaming music videos (dominated by electronica, but with a surprising smattering of C&W and alternative rockers) to live, weekly in-studio Webcasts and to original, in-house programming such as their short films and episodic offerings, InterneTV may well be a future content provider for that boxy old Zenith you're getting snowy Seinfelds on now. InterneTV, literally the first out of the gate when it came to Internet broadcasting, began to take shape back in 1994, when Ashcraft was helming UT's student television station KVR-TV. After becoming enamored of the fledgling CU-See Me Webcast software while at Cornell University, Ashcraft returned to Austin and applied the software to KVR-TV's programming, making it the first student-run TV station in the country to arrive on the Web.
Enter the lanky, shorn Campanell, a recent transplant from D.C.'s George Washington University, who had been spending his time producing a show called Siberia for airing on the Brown University-based U-Network, a national network of college television stations. After moving to Austin in 1995 and securing a lucrative consulting job, Campanell and Ashcraft hooked up while both were at KVR-TV, and InterneTV was born.
"In February 1997 we launched the InterneTV site," says Campanell, "with music videos, film trailers, and performing arts and shorts programming. Through Siberia I had programmed a lot of computer animation and I knew a lot of people in the music video promotions departments, and so that's how we got started with that. We put out calls for submissions on the Net and things just started to come in."
While the nascent InterneTV was an immediate, qualified success, both realized that something more was needed. While ITV was the first to utilize the Net's inherent, groundbreaking absence of boundaries when it came to audio and visual programming, simple videos and film trailers were only part of the duo's plans. Campanell, experienced in the creation of short films through his work at GWU, began work on what would eventually become the site's flagship enterprise: the creation of original short films, run episodically over the Net via streaming video players such as RealPlayer and VIVO.
"Austin came directly from that need for original programming," says Campanell. "At the time, we were showing music videos and so on, and we realized we needed programming that not everybody had. There were other sites appearing and people just jumping on board doing music videos and trailers and that type of thing so clearly we needed something apart from that. On the back burner in my mind I had had the idea to do a Web-based soap opera, and when the opportunity came, I hooked up with Irit Sofer -- she was the assistant programming director under Jay at KVRT, who came out of a comedy background, and together we sat down and wrote Austin." [Later, after Sofer moved to Tel Aviv, the pair continued hammering out the script over e-mail.]
"We finished the script, and then I hooked up with Tara Veneruso to direct, star in, and cast it, and some months later it debuted on the site. Plur was the next one out of the gate, and that was a project that I had worked on before Austin with a fellow by the name of Todd Porter who was from Washington State University. That was a U-Network project, U-Network being the network that ran Siberia, a national network of college television stations based out of Brown University. Anyway, Todd and I wanted to cover the rave scene, and he was living in San Francisco at the time while I was living in D.C., so I ended up shooting a lot of the East Coast footage and then went out to San Francisco and finished up the rest of the footage out there. That ended up becoming Plur, which was originally slated to be released as a videotape, but then when the Web series came along, I went with that."
In all, InterneTV has done four distinct original films, the other two being Chemical Generation and the upcoming Bartenders. Having garnered kudos and media attention from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Texas Monthly, it comes as a surprise when Campanell says he really doesn't have a mechanism in place to handle feedback.
"With the original programming, we don't really get a whole heck of a lot of good feedback; it's more people just e-mailing the characters and saying how much they love them and how beautiful they are. To the female characters, mostly."
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, however, Ashcraft and Campanell should be blushing crimson. In the four years since ITV's inception, a flurry of similar Webcasting sites such as Jason Wishnow's The New Venue, Pseudo, and the Digital Entertainment Network [DEN] have arisen, and in many cases, stolen the limelight (at least temporarily) from ITV.
Campanell sees this as merely another way to point out the dramatic differences between ITV and its kinda-sorta competitors.
"Sites like Jason Wishnow's The New Venue do primarily short films," he explains, "while, say, Pseudo does talk TV, and DEN tends to do news stories as opposed to actual content. I haven't seen a whole heck of a lot of their stuff since they launched. What's different about us is that we have basically three elements: We have live, interactive in-studio programming such as Audioburner, which is our hip-hop show Tuesday nights, Ultrasound, which is our techno/drum-and-bass show on Wednesday nights, and we have Beat Freak, which is a house and progressive trance show on Thursday nights. All of those are done live here and then we run visuals so it makes it a little more interesting. So we've got those, we have the original programming, and then we have film programming as well."
Adds Ashcraft: "It was the first-ever online video site, before even audio was being done, and it's more than what a lot of other people are doing. We never settled for one type of thing, that is, we employ RealPlayer, Microsoft MediaPlayer, VIVO, etc. And of course we were not just music, we also did film trailers, live performances, and original content. Anything anybody else was doing, we were doing it first."
As for the convergence argument, Campanell says ITV is looking to attach itself to an entity like Time Warner's new digital cable system, which would then allow the site to be downloaded directly into the home alongside the more traditional cable TV. "Our business model is for the high bandwidth and to get subscriber revenues from the cable companies. We're speaking to Time Warner, and they're charging, what, 40 dollars a month? All we're asking them is 25 cents a month and then we can encode it for high bandwidth and get on their server so that you'd get a really fast stream. They have a dedicated network, and that's where the speed comes from. However, all the people who have been offering high bandwidth Internet access, like Time Warner, have been refusing to pay for content."
And why's that?
"I think the reason is that it's just too early to tell, and plus, they just started rolling this stuff out this past year and they don't really know what their customers want yet. But I think, as time will tell, the novelty of it all -- the need for speed -- will wear off and they're going to have to have content that is original and created specifically for that medium. I don't think the viewers are going to want the same type of content that you get on your television."
Like much new media, ITV isn't exactly rolling in the green. Neither Campanell, who spends his days at the ITV suite inside 501 Studios' warren of media start-ups, nor Ashcraft, who, according to his partner, "never leaves his home," where he attends to the day-to-day server logistics, is driving a new SUV yet. In fact, says Campanell, "We're the real underdog here, because Pseudo just got around $14-17 million in funding; DEN's original investors put in $12 million and got $8 million in venture funding. As for us, it's in the low five figures," he says with a laugh.
That aside, along with ITV's original programming (which is taking part of the Austin film community in a whole new direction), visitors to the site will no doubt notice the abundance of electronica-related programming, from video clips to the weekly live sets in the studio, to the raver-centric original short films. When I asked Campanell why there's so much of a focus on electronica, he admitted to a longtime love of the genre which naturally bled over onto the site.
"Yeah, that's personal with me," he adds. "I've been involved with that scene since the early Nineties. The connection between the electronic music scene and stuff like us is that the Internet is being built on electronic music. Literally. I mean, the people who are building the Web sites, what are they listening to when they're building those sites? Electronic music. The Internet and electronic music have always had a strong connection together, and if you look at a lot of the multimedia programming, the DIY programming, a lot of it is following electronic music. You've got some other strong sites like Groovetech out of Seattle and Beta Lounge in San Francisco, as well as things like Pirate Radio U.K., and they're all about the electronic music scene. They just seem to complement each other."
Upcoming additions to the site will include ITV's first "acquired" programming, from California animator Jim Lujan, who will be familiar to followers of Austin's Conduit Digital Film Festival for his animated short "Stoner Girl," and a new film by Tara Veneruso entitled Nine Boyfriends, which is slated to begin shooting this fall, and which will mark the debut of ITV's use of the interactive Web animation tool Flash. Still, there's the question of ITV vs. TV. Regarding that much-heralded convergence, will Time Warner view this sort of upstart Webcasting as a boon or a threat?
"Both," says Ashcraft. "It's obviously a threat, because even network TV goes down, what, 6% every year? This fall, CBS is starting to produce all of their shows, which will be the first time in history a network has done everything entirely in-house. So, yeah, the networks are feeling the pinch from cable and also the Internet, which is why they've embraced it so much. Just this last week, NBC bought into this new set-top box that will allow people to download their shows whenever they want to watch them and have them commercial-free. They're in on it. ABC's got Disney now, and they're deep into it as well. The ones that are kind of slow are the content providers, and they're the ones that have the most to lose. Everything's a threat to TV, really."
"You know," he adds, "Gene Siskel, on one of his last shows before he died, was saying how next year's Sundance Film Festival was going to have probably 50% digital video offerings as opposed to this year's, like, 5%, and that's what I've always thought of ITV as conceptually: digital television, online. The thing that's coolest to me is that it all started here, as an idea. I just wish I had my $400 million like all these other suckers."
Just you wait, Jay, just you wait.
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