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The New York Times - July 1, 2004

Internet TV: Don't Touch That Mouse!
By Tim Gnatek
Published: July 1, 2004

SIR MIX-A-LOT'S salacious 1992 hit ''Baby Got Back'' blasted from the house stereo system at 7 Bamboo, a karaoke bar here, on a Friday night. Two bar regulars momentarily turned rap stars, billed as Toqer and Woody, gyrated on the corner stage and praised big behinds as the audience joined in with off-key wails.

It was great entertainment for the regulars at the 'Boo, as well as for 14 others who were watching the performance online from as far as St. Louis, Uruguay and Australia and as near as the next town.

Shortly after Toqer and Woody finished the song, Woody's cellphone rang. ''That was my friend,'' said Woody, who is Woodrow Mosqueda away from the karaoke stage. ''He just saw us online and he's on his way here!''

The medium was a Web-based television station called ToqerTV, an enterprise that makes Toqer, also known as Robert Cortese, the establishment's 31-year-old karaoke jockey and Webmaster, immensely proud.

''I am a modern-day Marconi,'' Mr. Cortese said as he tended to his computer beside the stage. ''People may mock it, but 10 years from now, all our content is going to be delivered like this.''

Mr. Cortese, whose pompadour is distinctly more 50's greaser than rapper, developed the station himself, solicited the bar's permission to stream the show on the Internet, created a Web site and chat room and even started selling merchandise in support of what he considers the first all-karaoke television station.

Its content may be unique, but its approach is not. ToqerTV is one of over 100 independent television stations streaming over the Internet, covering almost every imaginable interest.

Increased broadband access and enhanced streaming technologies have boosted Internet video from the blocky slide shows of the past to presentations that can begin to rival conventional television. Programming has expanded, too. With the adoption of popular media players like RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, avid video hunters can download and watch movies, sports programs and television news.

With the Winamp media player (www.winamp.com), many of the independent stations can be seen as well. Although Winamp's company, Nullsoft, was acquired by America Online in 1999, the group has maintained a close allegiance with a core group of users who take advantage of its free and powerful media tools -- the perfect mix for such low-budget operations.

Earlier versions of Winamp helped to popularize the MP3 music format, and thousands have used its Shoutcast server technology to build their own online radio stations. Nullsoft Video seems to be quickly following in popularity.

AOL has done some of its own programming on the player, airing high-quality videos of performers like Bjork and Radiohead, and also putting together select video clip submissions in a special ''public access'' channel.

A vast majority of the stations, however, are the work of individual programmers who serve their own video clips amassed, legally or not, on their hard drives. Japanese animation is very popular, as are the latest episodes of ''The Simpsons,'' ''South Park'' and ''Invader Zim.''

Others turn to yesteryear for inspiration. Webranger Nostalgia Broadcasting (www.webranger.net) runs five channels of classic movies and television programming.

Airing vintage material is an old hobby for the station's creator, Kevin VandeWettering, 41, who broadcasts from his home in Hillsboro, Ore. ''I've been doing an old-time radio site since they invented the Internet,'' he said.

Mr. VandeWettering switched to video as soon as the technology became available. ''I like vintage film,'' he said. ''And I like to share.''

The old films he runs span the genres: everything from Abbott and Costello and ''The Lone Ranger'' to ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers'' and ''The Mark of the Hawk'' with Sidney Poitier. He trolls through online auction sites and a nearby Goodwill store for material published without copyright notice, or whose copyrights have expired.

He has never run into legal problems, he said, and he intends to keep things that way. ''It's challenging to find out what I'm not going to get sued over,'' he said.

That challenge does not apply to stations like ToqerTV, whose programs are entirely original.

Winamp TV carries many personal Webcam stations, garage-band music videos and ''frag movies'' -- video taken mid-action from first-person shooter games. (Watching them is much like watching an older brother hog a video game, to a fist-pumping soundtrack.)

One of the biggest independently produced successes on the Internet takes the frag movie concept to hilarious ends. The series ''Red vs. Blue'' places dialogue over video snatched from the multiplayer shooter game Halo to create short sitcoms.

''Red vs. Blue'' began as a free weekly download at the show's Web site (www.redvsblue.com). The creator of the series, Mike Burns, lost count at over 750,000 weekly viewers. ''I would have thought that everyone who wanted to see it had seen it,'' said Mr. Burns, 31, who works by day at a computer help desk and does most of the show's programming on his days off. ''But after we started on Winamp TV, we're getting e-mails from new viewers all the time.''

For Mr. Burns and his small group of collaborators, Internet programming provides a fresh audience for their creative efforts. ''There are very few people doing this on a regular basis,'' he said. ''It's like when cinema was new.''

As fans download and discover the programming on Winamp TV, the audience grows. AOL counts 18 million installations of the video-enabled Winamp 5 player, although the player's traffic counter usually lists a number closer to 2,500 active viewers. One avid Winamp TV watcher, Dave Childers, 39, of Mobile, Ala., spends five hours a day tuning to online broadcasts. ''I don't watch regular television much anymore,'' he said.

Mr. Childers's favorite channels are Korean music show OhMyTrance (www.ohmytrance.com), and Rant TV (www.ranttv.com), which runs documentaries of dumpster diving and radical political talk along with instructions on how to hot-rod a sports car illegally. Mr. Childers is partial to Rant TV's Sean Kennedy, the host of an uncensored fringe talk show, who appears in a kung fu uniform. ''You would never see that on network TV,'' he said. ''They'd haul the guy off.''

Alex Blum, America Online's vice president for broadband services, cautions that Winamp television is an advanced tool for technically minded enthusiasts. ''At this point, it's kind of an experiment,'' he said. ''We put some tools out there, but it's not easy. The jury's still out on whether this is a mass-market thing.''

Tom Wolzien, an analyst with Bernstein Investment Research and Management, said that the success of such programming depends on how well independent broadcasters can keep up with viewer demand, given the cost of the servers and Internet connections required. ''The real issue is, where is the server located?'' Mr. Wolzien said. ''How do you get it from your garage to the Web?''

Once that hurdle has been overcome, he said, anything is possible. ''If you think of the stuff that's come out of 'Saturday Night Live,''' he said, ''a lot of it has just been two guys sitting on a couch.''

Get Started

A Concise Guide To Video Streams

THE Winamp 5 player, found at www.winamp.com, offers access to over 100 independent video broadcasts through a special Internet TV browser, from music videos and cartoons to adult movies and Webcam talk shows.

To see the programming, users need to install the player on a PC (not a Mac) with at least a 1-gigahertz Pentium III processor, Windows 98 SE or later, 128 megabytes of RAM, a 16-bit sound card and a 32-bit video card.

A high-speed Internet connection improves Winamp video viewing, but the stations' own servers and bandwidths greatly determine video quality. Video streams can vary from choppy and blocky to smooth and clean, even with a maximized screen. Stations handle a finite audience, again dependent on broadcasters' connections, so new viewers can be temporarily shut out of available slots, which can sometimes make it a challenge to see popular programs.

Selecting ''Internet TV'' from the player's media library loads an eclectic list of broadcasts.

For those interested in starting a station, details are available at the Winamp site or www.scvi.net. The tools required are for advanced users and require familiarity with servers and command-line programming.