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October 3, 2007

Experts' Expert: 'Where to find highbrow videos on the web'

Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal decided to see what else besides YouTube and its ilk reside in virtual space, awaiting your visit.

Here's his June 20, 2007 Wall Street Journal article, complete with live links to all the sites (nine total) he featured.

    Matters of the Mind

    Want something more substantive than YouTube? Here's where to find highbrow videos on the Web.

    A great documentary history of the Mormon Church was broadcast by PBS last month. But don't fret if you missed it, either live or on TiVo. The Internet is coming to the rescue. All four hours of the show are available for viewing online, as streaming video at PBS.org.

    That's just one of countless examples of the way in which the Web is coming into its own as a source of what might be called smart video. While YouTube has captured a great deal of attention and traffic for its vast collection of mostly goofy videos, a growing number of sites are providing more-cerebral alternatives: documentaries, speeches, panel discussions, research reports and more.

    In some instances, production values are minimal — think C-SPAN, with just a single camera trained on a podium. But remember, you're supposed to be here for the ideas, not the flashy graphics. So after you've spent an hour watching the most popular downloads at YouTube or iFilm, and want to atone for the wasted time, you can check them out.

    TV and More

    The show on the Mormons was made for broadcast as a joint project of the PBS shows "Frontline" and "American Experience." Increasingly, programs like these that are shown first on PBS are later being offered online. Several of the PBS "Frontline" documentaries and "Nova" science shows are available on the Web.

    Unfortunately for the many fans of these programs, though, the number currently being hosted on the Web is still relatively small, because of legal issues: Many of the programs were made for PBS under contracts that didn't mention online distribution. But over time, more and more of them are expected to be Web-ready.

    Taking high-quality shows created for traditional TV and then showing them on the Web is the first, and most obvious, step being taken to raise the Internet's video IQ. In a separate development, Web entrepreneurs are going the YouTube route, but with a high-IQ twist, creating entire sites devoted just to smart video.

    One of the most ambitious is Fora.tv, a San Francisco-based outfit that wants to be the go-to site for speeches, panel discussions, symposiums and the like.

    Chapter and Verse

    Fora.tv has arrangements with many lecture societies, think tanks and big book stores. Members include the Brookings Institution, the Asia Society, the Hoover Institution and more than a dozen others. When one of them sponsors a speech or panel discussion, a Fora.tv crew — usually, one person and a digital camera — shows up and records it.

    Back at the office, the speech is uploaded to a computer and then annotated by "chapters," much like DVDs divide up feature films. The file is then put online. You can either watch the whole speech or jump to any chapter. Some even have transcripts that appear in synch with the video.

    Fora has hundreds of videos on scores of topics, in the arts, current events, business, science and more. There's a session on feminism and other topics with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem; Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus discusses how microfinance can end poverty; and writer Ian Buruma talks about social tensions in modern Europe.

    Brian Gruber, the founder of the site, says his goal is for Internet users to think of Fora.tv as the gathering place for those who want to experience for themselves a speech or panel discussion they may have read about in the paper.

    Academic Research

    There are plenty of other smart video sites to explore. The Research Channel is a consortium of major universities that banded together to put presentations by their top researchers on public-access cable channels. It also has its own Web site, ResearchChannel.org, where you can watch the presentations.

    The channel's emphasis is on academic research and unvarnished technical topics. William Phillips, the National Institute of Standards and Technology physicist who won the 1997 Nobel Prize, talks about his work slowing down atoms. But the humanities aren't overlooked, and neither is nostalgia. In "A Visit to Our Studios" from 1952, viewers are taken on a tour of the locale where Johns Hopkins University produced a series of science shows during the 1940s and 1950s. Many of those shows from Johns Hopkins are themselves available on the site, along with a video about the importance of preserving them.

    The University Channel, at UC.Princeton.edu, a project of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, does much the same thing as the Research Channel, but with its own lineup of universities. The channel's initial focus is on public affairs, but it expects to expand into other areas.

    The United Kingdom has a research channel of its own, www.Research-TV.com, emphasizing work at U.K. colleges and universities.

    Other substantive fare is sprinkled around the Web and can be hard to find. So some sites have cropped up as directories for these hidden gems. For example, the Traditional Fine Arts Organization Inc. works to support the arts in the U.S.; on its Web site, there's a directory of arts-oriented videos throughout the Web. At the main TFAOI.org page, click on "Catalogues," and then on "Online Video on Demand."

    One of the few online sources of smart video that charge users is TotalVid.com, owned by the Norfolk, Va.-based TotalVid Inc. unit of Landmark Communications Inc. It costs $9.95 a month for access to a huge library of how-to and documentary videos, many of them originally made for broadcast sites like Landmark's Weather Channel. Users can test the site free for a week.

    Plenty of Niches

    Niche-oriented video sites are another characteristic of the burgeoning world of smart video. Some focus on a single topic, like EnergyPolicyTV.com. Others are geographically based. UVu.Channel2.org offers videos that emphasize the art and culture of the Miami and South Florida area; it's run by WPBT, which is the PBS station in the area.

    Other niche sites are dedicated to an event. The annual wide-ranging TED conference is well-known in Silicon Valley for its eclectic group of presenters on topics including technology, entertainment, business, science, culture and others; now, videos of many of those presentations are at TED.com for all to see.

    Home-improvement buffs should know that virtually all of the big do-it-yourself shows on cable TV have Web sites, many of which offer video content.

    Countless hours of edifying video, all waiting out there for you, nearly all of it free to all askers. Don't you feel smarter already just knowing about it?

October 3, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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