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The Next 'Threat' to Entertainment, April 11, 1999 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: April 11, 1999
"The Next 'Threat' to Entertainment" [permalink]
    keywords: entertainment, media, movies
    soapbox #: 182
    written: April 11, 1999
    words: 1829

"The Next 'Threat' to Entertainment", an Essay

Over a year and a half ago, I wrote a Soapbox about MP3s and their role in reforming the music industry.

Yes, I will make note of the fact that I posted that essay well in advance of others who are supposedly in the know when it comes to the Internet. By no means was I the first to try MP3s, but these well-respected Internet folks who get quoted and played out have no clue. There's a whole group of Netizens out there who suck up information as soon as it comes out -- they operate days or even weeks ahead of most people as far as reacting to news goes.

The music industry has yet to begin handling the whole MP3 situation well. As a quick refresher, MP3 is a file format that allows you to compress a song at near-CD quality into about 3-10MB, depending on the length of the song. Song tracks off a CD are about 50MB. What this means is that MP3s are easy to download and collect and play off a hard drive. Obviously, it means the distributors and record labels are not getting the money from someone who downloads songs off the Internet.

So the music industry has blown it. The RIAA ("Really, the Internet Ain't Anything!) is attempting to salvage its price-hiking traditions by introducing a new file format that will supposedly kill MP3. I suppose they expect to keep casual users from getting songs for free, but there's really no point -- there'll always be a hacker community willing to buy a CD and encode it to a FREE file format and then distribute it.

Let us put the music industry aside now. Its future is already played out. You'll always be able to download that new album weeks before it officially is released (thanks to reviewers and people in the biz who leak it to the 'Net) as it barely harms your fat bandwidth connection during the process of downloading the 5MB files.

What's next? Video. We've known this for a long time. AOL and @Home and AT&T and all the big names are making deals to get into video with Real Networks and Microsoft etc. etc. They want to cash in the whole video craze once bandwidth is more wide-spread and the 'Net is upgraded to handle it. They already missed out on the audio craze.

So what do I mean when I say video? Well, I suppose broadcasting TV onto the 'Net isn't far off, but I think the main thing will be allowing individuals to broadcast their own little channels (think public access networks), marketing movies and companies and such over the Web, providing better demos of products and tech support for electronics gone bad. Video conferencing will be a big thing. All of this is hindered by the poor throughput that most people have right now.

But think how video will hurt, say, the movie industry. I wonder if the movie industry is watching how the RIAA is handling audio pirating. Because they'll be in exactly the same situation soon.

I had the pleasure of watching the screener version of The Matrix on my roommate's COMPUTER last week. He was running it full-screen through Media Player. (it's just about 1.6GB of two movie files burned to CD) It looked great at 800x600 with no choppiness on his Voodoo2. I ran it on my G200 at 1024x768, and it looked even better. I want to view it at 1280x1024 on my newer 15" monitor when I get home. This old 15" won't go that high. By the way, if you know of where to get a 19" or 21" monitor cheap, PLEASE let me know.

So...this was the actual movie, in full-length and at high quality. I could watch the whole office building firefight/explosion/bullet-dodging/helicopter sequence until my eyes bled -- one of the most fun action sequences I've ever seen. If it looked that good on a 15" monitor, I'd like to see it on a 21" monitor at 1600x1200 on a Millennium G200. I'd imagine the video quality would be flawless at that resolution. Just think about this: you can download over your digital connection an entire movie, burn it to CD, and watch it whenever you want, virtually as soon as the movie arrives in the theaters. Austin Powers 2, Terminator 3, Black Mask, etc...yummy.

And all it would cost you extra would be the cost of the recordable compact disc. And the time taken to download it and burn it to CD.

Sure, DVD is the new thing. But you know how long it takes for those movies to hit the market. Even longer for older movies that need remastering. Video cassettes? By far the easiest way to get movies conventionally, but things could be better. You still have to wait a year, and then you have to find a rental store that has the movie you want.

I am not exactly sure how screeners work. However, if you are thinking that I watched a videotaped version of the movie, let me clarify. Before screeners were around, people would have to videotape the movies in the theatres and then convert them to a data file. So you'd have poor video quality, poor sound quality, and people getting up at the bottom of the screen to take a whiz or to get something to eat, being the fat Americans they are. A screener, though, is converted from the movie reel itself, or from a digital copy, or something like that. It's still compressed, so it's not crystal clear, but you don't really notice.

Since it's a movie that plays in Windows Media Player or whatever you use, it's simply frames strung together. So you can go back through a movie frame by frame to see cool effects or to fulfill whatever unnatural obsession you have with that scene. You can skip ahead or backwards to wherever you want. Sweet.

No matter what the industry does, there'll always be someone who gets a copy of a movie or a CD or a computer game and leaks it onto the Internet. Once it's on the 'Net, you can forget about it. You'll never be able to remove it again. Which is what makes record labels' attempts to pull their artists' MP3 releases from the 'Net so funny. For instance, Tom Petty released a track on MP3, and it was downloaded by some ungodly number of people, and then it was pulled off Petty's site. One person, in response, said, "Oh well, guess I'll have to go hit the MP3 search engines..." The track is still easily accessible.

So movies are going to be the next pirated thing. Disk space, recordable media, bandwidth, and raw system power are becoming less of hindrances to the duplication of information. I wouldn't be surprised if the Phantom Menace screener is already available. You'll be able to get movies online virtually as soon as they premiere.

Does this replace going to the movie theatre? No, not really... There's something to be said for seeing the highest-quality version on a huge screen and sharing the experience with other people in the audience. But if you want to watch a movie multiple times? Sure, then viewing it on your computer is convenient. I saw The Matrix thrice in the theatres (so you schmucks got my money), but now I plan on sitting back and watching it in the privacy of my own room.

And there's not much the movie industry can do. They already have checks in place to keep movies from leaking to video...but it can't stop the Internet. There's nothing they can do...except accept it and learn to embrace it somehow. I do not envy distributors at this point in time.

(Ironically, to make a brief digression, what form of media is holding up astonishingly well? Books. Text. Go ahead. Look for books online. There ARE people who would read them. But no one's going to take the time to either type up a whole book or OCR scan every single page. About the only books you can find online are books published online or books that are no longer copyrighted and are now sponsored by those like the Gutenburg Project, a collection of texts online. Unless the author leaks the book, or a friend or copy editor or whoever gets a digital copy of it, you're probably not going to see it online for awhile. Behold the power of the book!)

Is there something to be said for fair compensation and copyright? Absolutely. Are fair compensation and copyright actually unfair and primarily one-sided now? It's arguable.

But how much do you think we end-users care? This isn't so much political as wanting to see movies and hear music we enjoy. I'm pretty sure most people don't view listening to MP3s as sticking it to the man so much as they do listening to it because it's worth it.

The distributors and labels could learn something from that.

The Internet continues to test traditional boundaries and laws and iniquities set up by businesses and institutions that knew they could get away with it because they controlled the information. It is exposing the frauds and making things more efficient and bi-directional, by cutting down on extraneous distribution and inventory costs, and by allowing both sides to communicate their needs better on a more individual level. What we're seeing now are companies that are smaller and more easily able to exploit the slower-moving big companies. What you see in eBay and Amazon.com and PriceLine.com will be the same kinds of models that will be spearheaded by efforts like MP3.com (who have just filed for an IPO) and Real Networks and big heavy-hitter video companies that haven't emerged yet. Small, focused companies who embrace MP3 and MPEG and other successful file formats instead of trying to kill them off will continue to succeed. (along with being a part of the huge growth of dot-com stocks that the NASDAQ has enjoyed)

The 'Net is winning, thriving, and growing more and more. It's out of control. It can't be contained by analysis or description -- it's simply too big now. It's too big for any one person to ever fully explore. And it will keep growing and growing with few, if any, maximum limits.

And I love being a part of it.


 
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