Streaming Media Isn’t Just Streaming Media Anymore

One of the recurring themes of the Streaming Media West conference is that “streaming media” is too narrow and no longer captures everything that is being discussed, and that most of the people here deal with.

Podcasting and video blogging have been big topics, even if it’s clear that the folks here have no more clue about it than anyone else. Sure, most people at the conference know how to podcast or video blog, but typically missing from the equation is, “why?” and “what for?”

On Tuesday morning there was a session on podcasting and vblogging that included a guy from the NY Times online and CNet, in addition to a/v-blogging entrepeneur Eric Rice, and Kevin Marks from Technorati, who appeared via videoblog and Skype.

In Marks’ vblog entry, he recounts his history in broadcast and streaming, and declares that podcasting is the death of streaming. He points to the issues that degrade the quality of the streaming experience, especially buffering and how quality degrades when bandwidth fluctuates as the culprits.

By contrast, Marks says that podcasts and video blogs download in the background, so that a full-quality version sits on your hard drive ready when you are, rather than you waiting for a live webcast or being patient with a spotty stream.

I think Marks believes this point, though I also think his intent was to be controversial and stir things up, which made the discussion much more interesting. I do agree with Marks on some points, but I think his argument is overbroad.

As was noted on the panel, streaming is very good for up to the minute news and other timely information that expires quickly sitting on your hard drive for a day or two.

Obviously, streaming is a must for live events.

But it’s also true that streaming is overkill for some applications, as demonstrated by the popularlity of podcasting. Plenty of content is not so-timely that listening or watching within the span or two degrades the value of the program. That’s why I podcast the mediageek radioshow. The other reason is because live streaming the program is relatively expensive and doesn’t add much more audience, since listeners would have to reserve time in the schedule to tune in live, just like my WEFT listeners do.

Of course, to the entertainment cartel, podcasting is still viewed as a threat, since it essentially is downloading, and without any kind of DRM. I’m glad to have the mediageek radioshow downloaded, shared and reused (if you can fine some way to recycle it), but we all know that the RIAA and MPAA are not quite so open to it.

From the grassroots perspective, streaming radio has proven to be valuable during times of conflict and crisis. Indymedia and other media activists have put online stations on the ‘net for big protests and actions, like the RNC in NYC last fall. But those streams don’t just serve people connected to the ‘net since licensed and unlicensed stations pick up those streams to rebroadcast to people without an internet connection.

Again, it’s the live nature of the streamed content that is most important, and streaming serves that up in a way that podcasting just doesn’t do as efficiently.

Eric Rice was on this panel to speak to the fact that podcasting has lowered barriers, and I do agree with that point, even though he is less a true independent media maker than entrepeneur who aspires to build his own online media empire. He’s out to join the media giants, or maybe replace them, not overturn the concept of media giant.

By and large, the barrier to having your own streaming audio or video station is higher than podcasting, especially with respect to the number of people who can hear a given program. Podcasting spreads out listeners/viewers over time, while streaming emphasizes simultaneity, which is limited if you don’t have a lot of money for bandwidth.

And yet, streaming is still useful for getting a radio-like experience, which is something that people are still familiar with and like — I think people are ditching broadcast radio because most of it sucks, not because they don’t like the medium. I listen to streaming radio stations when I don’t feel like having to program every song I want to hear, or even have to choose a specialty program out of the podcasts I’ve downloaded. Plus, podcast shows don’t have a lot of music because the RIAA has intimidated them out of it.

Nevertheless, the initial point stands — we’re talking about Internet and digital media here, not just streaming. When most people acceessed the internet with a 56k modem, downloading just one mp3 was an exercise in frustration, so getting a 32k audio stream was a very good alternative. That’s not our world anymore.

We can’t dismiss downloading, podcasting or videoblogging. But I think it’s foolish to leave streaming by the side of the road. Each of these media are really just approaches to delivering content to people. It’s not better or worse, it’s what most appropriate to what you’re communicating, and who you’re communicating to.






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