Macromedia’s Flash is emerging as the video format of choice for Web sites concerned about compatiblity with all browsers.
As TV stations look to increase the amount and prominence of video on their Web sites, they better make sure their entire audience can enjoy it.
It turns out that the most common format for providing online video—Windows Media Player—isn’t quite doing the job for the growing percentage of users that surf using the Mac or Mozilla’s open-source Firefox Web browser.
Mac users, in particular, have long complained that the current version of Windows Media Player written for the Mac is jerky and unreliable, and that it offers none of the functionality later PC-versions of the player do.
Macromedia’s Flash technology, which enables video to be streamed directly on a site without having to download a separate player, may be the solution. It can be viewed by any computer and allows stations the greatest flexibility in the way they present the video online. Station Web site providers Internet Broadcasting and WorldNow are both offering or moving to offer Flash.
Microsoft’s lack of support of Mac and Mozilla users is actually proving to be a deal breaker for some Web site operators. The PBS blog Mediashift reported last week that the Cox Newspaper group decided to remove the just launched AP video service from all its newspaper Web sites out of concern for the Mac and Firefox users.
AP Broadcast confirmed the report, saying Cox was the one company that had signed up to beta test the product that decided not use it because of the video issue. AP also said it was working with Microsoft to develop a second-generation player more compatible with Firefox and Mac.
“Microsoft understands this is a really big issue in our markets and is working to solve the problem,” said Jim Kathman, director of strategy and planning for AP Broadcast.
Young Broadcasting’s WKRN Nashville discontinued its relationship with WorldNow earlier this year partly because of this issue. The station relaunched a more video-centric Web site in February that features a Flash 8 player.
“In the old version you had to wait for the player to come up and buffer the video. A lot of people got frustrated with that. And for Mac users it was just tough luck,” said WKRN GM Mike Sechrist. “This area has a high percentage of Mac users, somewhere in the 30% range. You wouldn’t buy a transmitter that didn’t hit a couple of counties.”
WorldNow concedes the Windows Media player is not adequate for Mac users. It is beta testing a Flash player on the Web sites of WLS Chicago and WPTV West Palm Beach, Fla.. Several more stations will begin testing it later this month. The company is planning to offer it to all of the 175 video sites it supports by the end of the summer.
“Mac people can see video using the other player, but it isn’t put together in a nice fashion. We want their experience to be just as good,” said Sandhi Kozsuch, WorldNow executive vice president of marketing.
One drawback to offering Flash-based solutions is that it costs stations more to encode video in the format. Macromedia charges a royalty that is significantly more expensive, according to Internet Broadcasting CTO David Abbott. Plus, he said, it requires more bandwidth, which also ratchets up the cost.
Flash gives stations tremendous flexibility in the way they present the video and the user interface, but it takes time to configure and time is a luxury most stations don’t have.
“Flash is clearly the direction we want to go, but it’s an economic s thing,” said Internet Broadcasting’s Abbott. “We do transcoding locally and it costs a lot of time and money. It’s important to get transcoding done and up on the site as quickly as possible. After all, we are a news site.”
Internet Broadcasting says more of its stations are looking at offering Flash video in the coming months. Hearst-Argyle Television stations now offer Flash promos on their front page. WRAL Raleigh, N.C., has been offering Flash as an option for more than a year.
The more stations that come aboard, the cheaper the technology gets. Prices have dropped dramatically in the last year, says T.J. Kundalis, senior multimedia engineer at Internet Broadcasting.
“It’s great to see Flash nipping at the heels of Windows Media,” he said. “As we dream of the future, Flash will allow for more interactivity. There’s just not a lot you can do with this in Windows Media.”