Euro sites line up netcasting plans

Freedom of 'pirate radio station,' Netcaster CEO says

PARIS – Watch out Europe, here come the Netcasters. As the Continent gets cabled up to broadband, startups are furiously staking out their niches — but telcos are gearing up with their own crushing mass-market assault.

Ask Joe Comerford, CEO of Ireland’s NetTV, what running a Netcaster in Europe is like, and he’ll tell you: “It’s like a pirate radio station.”

In a European Union dominated by state broadcasters, restrictive media laws and syndicated programs, piping original content through the Internet is a burst of freedom, he says. “It’s the ability to broadcast what you want, when you want and then for the viewers to watch what they want when they want.”

His NetTV (www.nettv.ie) was one of the first independents to start Netcasting in Europe, putting out Irish sports, animation, music and films for an audience that, in two years, has grown to 10,000 viewers a month — most of whom are Irish ex-pats in the U.S. and Australia.

It’s a small operation unlikely to make the traditional TV nets blink, but that’s partly due to one of the biggest barriers to Netcasters being the impossibility to stream video to their viewer in broadband, without which images are jerky, pixeled and postage stamp size.

That, though, is all set to change.

Analysts predict that within the next five years, broadband Internet access will soar from a measly 0.6% of European homes to around 18%, nearly 30 million households.

Leaders of the pack

Tech-savvy Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain lead the pack, aggressively rolling out broadband through cable and asymmetric digital subscriber line phone lines. Spain, France and Italy lag far behind but are starting to get on the move.

One of the more ambitious Netcasters trying to position itself for the coming boom is Denmark’s ScoopStation (www.scoopstation.com), which launched domestically in August but is looking eventually to go multilingual, pushing into Sweden, Norway and Germany.

Its formula of news, sports, music, motoring and lifestyle programs — each kept to less than 10 minutes so as to not bore its young demographic — has so far attracted more than 50,000 viewers, CEO Michael Meister says.

Some of the content is bought from Web-wise producers, some is sponsored material, some is provided by viewers who have availed themselves of the company’s cameras, and some — like a recent documentary on ecstasy drug abuse — ScoopStation co-produces with an eye to possibly selling on later. Copyright cheating is kept in check with Microsoft software.

“The bandwidth barrier,” Meister says, “is coming down very rapidly in Sweden and Denmark, where fibers are being put in the ground faster than you’d believe.”

Within 18 months, he predicts, ScoopStation will have carved out its niche markets and become an attractive partner for traditional channels looking to go online.

Getting to viewers through the Web “is the future way of launching a TV channel,” Meister enthuses. “Some of the traditional providers will have to move into this area at some point in time, either by themselves or with someone else.”

Many, like Stuart Barlow, a Briton working in Germany to take local TV comedy talent online via ComedyWorld.com through e-TV (a production house that already provides German broadcast channels with standup material), also think the traditional nets will soon be flocking to the Web in a big way — but not through struggling startups.

“Netcasters need a lot of money to be present, to get traffic to their sites. You’re talking about an investment of millions,” he says. “And where does that money come from if you’re not already a big, established media company? Not the stock market — not anymore.

“You have to get your URL seen,” Barlow continues. “The Web is huge and if you don’t get people to your site, you’re just not going to survive.”

The overall idea of ComedyWorld, he says, is to provide content that can be linked to sites run by the big German players like the Kirch Group and Bertelsmann, which already dominate the traditional media sector, and who shamelessly cross-promote. When players like that decide to really tackle Netcasting in Europe, he says, the niche players of today will be steamrollered.

The extra danger for fledgling Netcasters, adds Forrester Research analyst Lars Godell, is that big telcos and cable companies are also looking to broadcast through the Web via their broadband systems.

UPC unit Chello Broadband, which is merging with U.S.-based Excite@Home, leads the cable charge across the Continent.

But Godell says the telcos are bringing huge competition to the game that will see subscription prices fall and content providers snapped up. The telcos eventually will overtake the cable companies as broadband deliverers when mass-market TV via the Web becomes a reality, around 2003, he says.

British Telecom is one of the quickest out of the telco blocks. BT has started BTOpenWorld, a broadband service that by December will have 50 content partners including CNN and Cartoon Network.

BT Internet senior VP in charge of content John Raczka says there are two approaches to broadband for TV being pursued in the U.K.: satellite broadcasters like BSkyB are looking to show their linear content, while others, like his operation, want to develop interactive TV.

The challenge everywhere, Raczka explains, is to set about “breaking programming models and building more relevance to why we’re even building this incremental pipe to the clients via the TV, which already has a lot of content on it.”

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