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April 21, 2007

fora.tv — 'Eggheads on the web'

Lee Gomes, in his April 18, 2007 Wall Street Journal column, called fora.tv and its brethren "YouTubes for wonks."

Long story short: Serious stuff like C-SPAN but with a much wider net, including business, technology and the arts.

There's also the Seattle-based Research Channel, now ten years old and featuring over 3,000 programs in business, the sciences and the humanities.

In the clip above from fora.tv, science-fiction author Neil Gaiman reads his poem, "Instructions."

Here's the Wall Street Journal piece.

    Suddenly, the Web Is Giving Eggheads Something to Watch

    It was bound to happen: just as the Internet was settling into its role as haven for videos about car crashes, Britney Spears and teenage confessions, people had to come along to ruin it all by trying to be serious.

    A number of Web efforts are under way to provide for more cerebral alternatives to television on the Web. Call them YouTubes for wonks.

    One is called Fora.tv. It's an ambitious for-profit effort based in San Francisco and funded by angel backers, including Will Hearst, the publishing heir and frequent tech investor. Fora's intent is to establish relations with all of the lecture series from the nation's scores of think tanks, civic groups, bookstores and the like, and then put tapes of their speeches and panel discussions online in an easily searchable fashion.

    C-SPAN, the cable public-affairs network that focuses mostly on Washington politics and policy, is an obvious model. Brian Gruber, Fora.tv's founder and chief executive, is a cable-TV executive who worked at C-SPAN during its early years. He said, though, that Fora.tv will be casting a much wider net than C-SPAN, including business, technology and the arts.

    Happily for folks with broadband connections, other outfits have similar ideas. One example is the Research Channel, a 10-year-old consortium of some of the country's best universities that is based at the University of Washington, Seattle. It started life as a public-access TV channel dedicated to presentations by college researchers. But it, too, now has a thriving Web presence, with more than 3,000 programs in business, the sciences and the humanities.

    These shows aren't for viewers with short attention spans, or who come expecting glossy but dumbed-down packages, like those increasingly found on the commercial cable channels that profess interests in history, science and the like.

    The typical Fora.tv offering is someone giving a speech and then taking questions at the end, with one or two cameras to record the scene. The topics are the sort that ought to interest anyone with a passing familiarity with the front page of a newspaper. One program last week featured speeches and panels on developments in the Middle East and on the conservative Christian movement in America.

    Among Fora.tv's channels are those for business, environment and religion. Mr. Gruber said Fora.tv aims to span the spectrum in its politics; it already has relationships with the rightist Hoover Institution and the center-left Brookings Institution.

    Of course, the unbounded horizons of the Web offer opportunities for niche players. Anyone who wants to create a TV channel just needs a computer and a Web address. As a business model, Mr. Gruber cites the profitable Weather Channel, saying it never would have been possible in the limited-channel world of broadcast television.

    On TV, in fact, new niches continue to crop up. Link TV, for example, is an international-oriented channel available on most cable and satellite systems. It's best known for its nightly "Mosaic" show, which features newscasts from the Middle East. There is also the recently launched Documentary Channel, which hopes to the tap the country's growing interest in the genre. The Documentary Channel is currently available on Dish, but would love subscribers to other services to write in to their provider and request it.

    Sites like Fora.tv are still in their early stages, and haven't yet attracted enough attention to be considered even niche players. Timothy Lorang, director of programming at the Research Channel, said an average show might attract 5,000 viewers.

    Their goals are ambitious. Fora.tv's is to be for ideas what ESPN is to sports. In some areas, like the upcoming presidential election, it will have a lot of competition, including from big players such as Google and Yahoo, which are themselves trying to connect with an interested public.

    Mr. Gruber says Fora.tv is mindful that it can't just dump a bunch of videos on a server and expect the public to be entranced. Instead, for each presentation, viewers can see a list of chapters, like those on a DVD movie, showing what the speaker is discussing at any particular point. You can skip to the section that interests you.

    You can also download sections, and whole presentations, for later listening as a podcast. In fact, sitting in the car or panting on the Stairmaster may be the best way to experience many of these visually plain offerings.

    In an ideal world, so-called serious programming on the Web wouldn't be limited to this species of plain-vanilla videos of academics and authors giving speeches. Many of them are, to be frank, rather dull.

    Great, gripping documentaries, such as the PBS "Nova" series or some of the latest BBC imports are expensive to produce, which is why we see them so infrequently on television and not at all online, at least not as original programming. But the Web is supposed to be all about boundless choice. For folks who get tired of short clips of dogs chasing their tale, their choices are beginning to multiply.

April 21, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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