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Web streaming draws eyes to Florida recount

MSNBC, ABCNews.com, Foxnews.com and others Webcast the hearing into the presidential vote recount, taking the strain off of a system that supports only a few hundred online viewers.

Major online news outlets stepped up Monday to Webcast the Florida Supreme Court hearing into the presidential vote recount, taking the strain off of a system that supports only a few hundred online viewers.

The closely watched event promised to introduce Web streaming to a potentially large new audience, which has flocked to the Internet for election coverage in the tightest race in history. Although the Internet provides the best coverage for niche news, analysts said, the online broadcast underscored the immense lead that traditional television holds over live Internet video for mass media.

"Unless you're stuck in sub-Saharan Africa, it's hard to imagine why you wouldn't watch the proceedings on TV," said Jay Stanley, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. Stanley follows the trends of politics online. "Watching it on the Web is like using a laser to open a can of soup. It's an unnecessary complication."

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday on the issue of hand-counted ballots in that state's presidential vote. Although the hearing will be shown on television, online news sites that have benefited from the election impasse, including MSNBC, ABCNews.com and FoxNews.com, broadcast a satellite feed of the proceedings, which could decide who takes the White House.

News sites have seen a surge in traffic following the presidential election, which remains too close to call. Monday's hearings promised to continue that trend even though streaming video quality is sketchy, likely making television the preferred viewing choice where available. Even on a high-speed connection, the Web broadcast from the Florida Supreme Court's site occasionally cut out for a few seconds at a time because of "buffering" problems that slowed data delivery.

The Florida Supreme Court's seven judges, all appointed by Democrats, heard lawyers for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore present arguments about whether the ongoing hand recounts in three Democratic-leaning counties should be accepted in the official vote tally.

Winning approval for the recounts is essential for Gore's chances of pulling ahead of Bush, who has a 930-vote lead from the 6 million votes cast in Florida in the election 12 days ago. Whoever gets Florida's 25 electoral votes will win the White House.

Breaking new ground
The Florida Supreme Court began broadcasting its oral arguments on the Internet in 1997, making it a pioneer of sorts, but demand has never been that strong for the service. The court and its broadcast partner, Florida State University, don't have the equipment for high-volume programming.

"We're working on getting more equipment," said WFSU-TV director of production Mike Dunn. WFSU-TV is FSU's noncommercial TV station; it handles the court feed. "Our server can only handle" a few hundred visitors, Dunn added.

In the more than three years the Florida Supreme Court and WFSU-TV have been offering Webcasts of oral arguments, there have been only 77,000 visits to the site, the court said.

Despite the pitfalls of streaming media, the Internet has proven a gold mine for niche programming and detailed coverage of the election impasse.

As information about the elections crisscrossed the Web, political junkies were able to see the controversial butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Fla.; witness the troublesome hanging chads on punch-hole ballots; and read all documents submitted in the legal battle before watching the hearings live.

"This shows that even when things are obscure, there is access to it on the Want election news? Get it here Internet," said Steven Clift, online strategist for Democracies Online, a political newswire.

Clift said he believes that even more information should have been available. He suggested 24-hour Webcams at the ballot recount stations.

"I want to see the overseas absentee ballot so that I can tell why they were rejected," Clift said, referring to the tens of thousands of ballots cast by military personnel serving abroad.

Though not everything was available online to satisfy Clift's political appetite, he was able to "get a greater depth of information on the Web to stay ahead of the traditional media."

Reading the legal documents before clicking onto Monday's court proceedings "was incredibly empowering," Clift added.

Fair play
Judges have historically been tentative about opening the courtroom doors to TV camera crews, much less the far-reaching scope of an Internet audience.

In California, trial court judges have routinely turned away TV crews--especially since the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles. The case held the nation's attention as people tuned into the proceedings of the day. After a not-guilty verdict was rendered, many questioned whether having cameras in court affected the performance of the judge and the attorneys as well as the behavior of the witnesses on the stand.

"There were concerns that television could make it more difficult to achieve a fair trial," said civil rights attorney David Grabill, based in Santa Rosa, Calif. "But if there were ever a case that should be available on television and the Internet, it is the hearings in Florida."

Good or bad, the O.J. Simpson trial gave TV viewers a peek into the inner workings of a criminal court case. The postelection legal battles may provide a similar jurisprudence lesson for the Internet public, legal experts say.

But if judges are nervous about news cameras, they are even more wary of the Net.

A year ago, the federal judiciary tried to stop legal news site APBNews.com from publishing the financial disclosures of every active and semiretired U.S. federal judge. Washington Post reporters were able to get their hands on the data, as were journalists at the Kansas City Star, but the judges said they worried about personal security if ABPNews posted the information on its Web site.

The online news site was finally able to post the data after receiving support from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was odd getting the blessing from Rehnquist because he has fought against opening U.S. Supreme Court sessions to TV and Internet media, said Grabill, who said he watched with amazement the Florida proceedings on his work computer.

"I have never seen any state supreme court hearings anywhere unless I was in the courtroom arguing a case myself," Grabill said. "I think it's great for the public to see that Florida has smart, impartial people on the Supreme Court bench. Instead of relying on the spin doctors, the public can judge for themselves what happened."