Madonna Webcast shows Internet is not TV

The Webcast of the London concert is intended to showcase Microsoft's multimedia technology--billed as "near-DVD quality"--but the performance leaves many virtual fans unimpressed.

5 min read
Live by the stream, die by the stream.

Microsoft's Webcast of Madonna's London concert Tuesday was intended to showcase the company's multimedia technology--billed as "near-DVD quality"--but the performance left many virtual fans unimpressed.

"Yeah, been trying for the past 50 minutes to get a stream, but to no avail. Would love to see the 'DVD quality' of this show...but I can't see (or hear) anything at all," one would-be viewer wrote to CNET News.com barely an hour into the broadcast.

A Microsoft representative said the Webcast drew 9 million logons, but the company did not break out unique visitors, meaning that number could be inflated if people signed on multiple times. The largest Webcast previously was last year's Paul McCartney concert at The Cavern in Liverpool, which had 3 million viewers.

Tuesday's large traffic number was not entirely good news for Madonna fans. Numerous complaints of slow, jerky and cut-off connections dampened what had been billed as one of the biggest live broadcast events ever over the Internet.

"It's difficult to comment about every individual's experience, but we wanted to make sure that there was a variety of different ways that they could access the activity," said Sharon Baylay, an MSN spokeswoman. "We tried to...work with significantly large players to deliver Webcast quality. What's difficult and what's always challenging is to know exactly how many people want to do that."

The Webcast commenced from London at 12 p.m. PST, kicking off with a preshow, with Madonna taking the stage just over an hour later.

The Microsoft Network Webcast the concert, held at London's Brixton Academy, offering what it called a near-DVD-quality stream at 700 kbps for people with extremely fast Internet connections. The event also was Webcast at 300, 128, 80 and 56 kbps. In addition, an audio-only 28.8-kbps stream allowed people with slow connections to hear the concert.

Some viewers accessing the broadcast at slower speeds said the quality was acceptable.

Madonna and MSN commissioned entertainment production company Done and Dusted to produce the Webcast; U.K.-based Web broadcaster MediaWave handled the mechanics of distributing the Net feed.

The Webcasting deal was considered a win for Microsoft in its ongoing battle with RealNetworks for dominance in Web streaming.

RealNetworks remains the leader in the field in terms of its overall footprint, claiming that some 85 percent of all streaming content on the Internet is accessed using its technology.

But Microsoft has made inroads with new releases of its Windows Media player and aggressive marketing tactics that include paying artists and Web sites to stream content exclusively in its formats.

Microsoft did not pay Madonna an up-front fee to secure the Webcast rights but did pick up promotional and carrying costs related to the concert. Bandwidth costs for the event could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Ben Sawyer, founder of Web streaming consulting firm the Digital Mill.

"It's a check one way or the other," he said.

Sawyer noted that the deal went forward despite the fact that Madonna's label is Warner Music, whose parent, Time Warner, is merging with America Online, which competes directly with Microsoft's MSN service.

Like Microsoft, RealNetworks has released new versions of its streaming technology, touting RealNetworks 8 as a breakthrough technology offering DVD quality over optimal Internet settings. The company downplayed the significance of the Madonna concert, saying that consumers will go with the technology that is most widely distributed over the long haul.

"It may provide a traffic spike, but consumers will ultimately go where the content is, which is RealNetworks," said company representative Erika Schaeffer.

RealNetworks has been involved in several high-profile streaming events, including a Webcast of a Victoria's Secret fashion show and an Internet broadcast of the TV show "Big Brother." In addition, the company's Real.com Web site is the most popular music site on the Internet, according to PC Data Online.

Other music Web sites among the top five ending last week were Shockwave.com, NetBroadcaster.com,

Net music hot spots
The top 10 music Web sites for the week of Nov. 25.

This week Last week Web site % Audience reached Unique users (000)
  1     1     Real.com       4.5%     4,033  
  2     2     Shockwave.com     3.7%     3,299  
  3     3     NetBroadcaster.com     2.9%     2,607  
  4     4     WindowsMedia.com     2.6%     2,353  
  5     5     Napster.com     2.6%     2,341  
  6     7     MP3.com     2.2%     2,006  
  7     6     MTV.com     2.1%     1,890  
  8     9     Lyrics.com     1.2%     1,106  
  9     10     RollingStone.com     1.0%     918  
  10     *     VH1.com     0.8%     686  
Source: PC Data Online
Microsoft's WindowsMedia.com and Napster.com, according to PC Data.

MSN had expected to reach an online audience of millions and touted the Madonna Webcast as the biggest global Net event. But analysts were quick to downplay the event, noting that the technology has yet to become a blockbuster.

"Will this be a landmark event in the streaming media world? No, because the experience isn't a great experience," Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy predicted before the show. "You're looking at a 2-by-2-inch screen, and it's not what consumers expect when watching entertainment."

McNealy said that people's expectation of entertainment is a full-size TV screen they can sit back and watch from a couch instead of leaning forward in front of their monitor.

Other Webcasts that have tempted bandwidth fate include the Victoria's Secret fashion show, which revealed that the Internet has yet to handle a mass audience. Viewers experienced problems in attempting to watch the live Webcast, and the Web site was overwhelmed.

John Corcoran, an Internet and digital new media stock analyst at CIBC World Markets, agreed that the reach and quality of streaming media is not yet good, but infrastructure and technology advances promise to bring improvements in the next few years.

"Streaming is not television (yet), but it's a fundamentally more efficient way to deliver content over the Internet than other methods (such as downloading files)," he said. "We expect streaming will grow large in the next two years or so."

Despite the limited access to broadband, MSN said it is "breaking new boundaries in live events."

"This is the stuff of dreams," an MSN representative said in a statement. "We're bringing the biggest star and the most anticipated music event in decades to the ultimate global audience. The Internet has never seen an event like this."

News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.