|Before Your Eyes|
Hey, who ordered sushi?" a technician calls out as he tries to help a deliveryman wandering among computer stations. Elsewhere, the receptionist strolls by in flip-flops, and a table hockey game sits idle on an overturned cardboard box. A team of producer-editors, or "predators," as they’re called in the offices of this start-up company, watches video clips on Macintosh computer screens. If the people working here ordered a drink in a bar, most would be asked for some form of ID.
It’s a typical dot-com kind of scene: informal, playful, unfinished. But don’t be fooled. Although FeedRoom’s office suite is sandwiched between a talent agency and a production studio in New York City’s bustling West Village — a rumor has been circulating that Courtney Love was sighted in a hallway — it is part of the latest high-stakes Internet frenzy that has shaken up corporate America. From California’s Route 101 to New York’s Wall Street, economic fortunes and professional reputations are being wagered on the answer to a question whose simplicity is matched only by its inscrutability: What kind of content do people want on the Internet, and how can investors make money off it?
The question is particularly important to the field of journalism, where the speed at which breaking news can be delivered is almost entirely dependent on the technology of delivery. Until the advent of television, journalists relied on printing presses to get their stories to readers, and the limitations are there to see in most East Coast morning papers, where asterisks on the baseball pages mark the West Coast scores that were still unavailable when the paper went to press. Broadcast television has closed this temporal gap, but aside from the case of truly exceptional news, viewers still have to wait for scheduled news programs. Over the past decade, cable has improved timeliness even further, although, with the exception of CNN (which in many parts of the world is the only source of uncensored news), the viewership of all-news networks is small enough to have prevented anyone but the biggest conglomerates from succeeding.
Then came the World Wide Web, with its potential to do away with this temporal gap entirely. The shrewdest Webheads so far have realized that, thanks to the infinite possibilities created by hyperlinks, readers can not only get their news more quickly on-line, they can choose which news to get. Some news sites monitor visitors’ on-line reading choices, then use the information to assemble personalized news pages for them; whenever the user returns to the site, he or she is greeted with news stories of particular interest. So far, the limitations of dial-up modems and the other readily available forms of Internet connection have meant that almost all Web journalism is composed of text, of words sitting statically on the screen. Despite the Web’s potential for multimedia presentation, television’s mastery of video is for the most part missing there. But as far as news delivery is concerned, the Internet has been a great equalizer. Newspapers and television networks are both stuck at the starting line with the same old text-based products, trying to peer out at what lies ahead.Jonathan Klein ’80 is betting $35 million that he knows what lies ahead and is going to get there first. A former executive vice president of CBS News, Klein is the president and CEO of FeedRoom, which, depending on your point of view, is either the enterprise best positioned for bringing the visual impact of television to the Web or a risky investment that is just too far ahead of its time. Klein’s credentials for taking on this work are impressive — at least on the television side. During a twenty-year career at CBS News, he oversaw both 60 Minutes and 48 Hours and won three Emmys and two George Foster Peabody Awards. But, despite his ability to drop terms such as convergence technology into casual conversation, he concedes that his fit among his young West Village office mates isn’t always so perfect.
"I’m not a Webhead or anything," he says. "I just saw that people were really taken with the Internet, yet I thought it did a terrible job of communicating. It was so text-heavy, so clunky to get through, so visually unappealing. If you could get television on your computer screen, television that did all the tricks of the Internet — my God! That’s an unbeatable combination."
With FeedRoom, Klein is gambling that at least some of the couch potato’s addiction to television can be transferred to the computer screen. After all, the average U.S. household has the television on for seven hours and twenty-four minutes a day. Now that more than half the population has Internet access, the amount of time spent on-line averages an hour a day. Over the past two years, the number of Americans who receive a daily Internet news fix has nearly tripled. Over the same period, network-television news audiences have shrunk by 8 percent, continuing a steady decline that began in the early 1980s. Klein hopes that, by allowing people to select the television news segments they want to watch, FeedRoom will pick up enough of these alienated viewers of television news to cut into the $50 billion or more that companies spend on television advertising every year.
From brand-name networks to ambitious new start-ups, FeedRoom is not alone in trying to find a niche on the broadband video-news frontier. Like FeedRoom, Zatso.com offers video-news programs from both national sources such as Bloomberg and C-Span as well as about thirty local television stations. With such major networks as CNN and MSNBC offering broadband video,
Other sites are more specialized. JagFn.com features video financial news for a niche business audience, and Medium4.com offers English-language newscasts from ten foreign cities, as well as several types of entertainment videos. Psuedo.com, which is perhaps the most experimental broadband site, offers hip interactive programming on politics, culture, and technology. During the Republican Convention, Pseudo’s platinum-blond, lip-pierced E.J., or electronic jockey, bantered with party officials as part of the network’s twenty-four-hour convention coverage. The Smithsonian Institution even asked for one of Pseudo’s digital cameras to mark the historic shift in broadcast news. — J.S.
As Klein sees it, the future of television news, at least as it’s likely to appear on the Web, will require a transfer of power to the viewer, a step that traditional producers and television executives are hesitant to take. As if to remind his colleagues of that point, Klein named FeedRoom after a space that exists in the inner sanctum of every TV news network. In feed rooms, a seemingly endless stream of video is poured in from around the world via satellite. News producers, of the sort Klein used to be at CBS, then set the national agenda by deciding what video will actually make it to broadcast. "Only a trickle of it comes out on the six-o’clock news," says Klein, "and it happens to be exactly what everyone else puts on their evening news. There’s a news pipeline that’s basically a guy standing on the White House lawn or a guy standing on JonBenet Ramsey’s lawn. It’s this false consensus that that’s what people want to watch."
Klein hopes to subvert this process by using FeedRoom to put the viewer in the producer’s chair. The site, which was scheduled to launch in August at feedroom.com, will be stocked with news videos and packaged reports that viewers can assemble into their own personalized newscasts. After a user’s computer screen goes black, a large video window appears, flanked by a half-dozen smaller ones promoting individual news stories. In addition, a menu in the upper left allows the viewer to switch to a selection of stories in such categories as National, World, Sports, Money, and Life & Entertainment. A more traditional text option is also offered as a kind of safety valve. A viewer might use the site to access stories about international politics and local weather, while screening out such distasteful subjects as violent crime or anything involving Regis Philbin. Although the site does have its own news anchor (Jen Snell, an Emmy award—winning investigative reporter who is also Klein’s wife), she doesn’t dictate the pace of the show. If the phone rings, the viewer can simply pause the broadcast and pick it up again later. If a segment sparks a viewer’s curiosity, the site offers links to more in-depth newspaper stories. The viewer can even interrupt a preproduced news story to get raw footage; for example, a story on Western U.S. forest fires can be put aside for a better view of the flames. New-media disciples have adopted a term for all this transfer of responsibility that would make a semiotics concentrator proud: disintermediation.
As the existence of this piece of jargon suggests, the FeedRoom idea is not original to Klein. Many companies are attempting to exploit what Web gurus, in yet another piece of argot, refer to as "convergence space," meaning the technological realm where the interactive features of a computer meet traditional television technology. It’s already possible, for example, to play along with game shows, order a pizza off the TV, or instant-chat one’s way through a sitcom. Microsoft’s WebTV service allows subscribers to surf the Web with a wireless keyboard, and in July, America Online joined the market with a test launch of AOL TV, a similar service. Interactive TV has already invaded Europe, where France’s Canal Plus and Open TV already have a combined 10 million subscribers.
In addition, two start-up companies recently began tempting TV junkies with personalized video recorders, or PVRs. These digital recording devices allow viewers to pause, rewind, and replay television programs as they are broadcast. Although all these services have yet to be widely accepted, entrepreneurs like Klein take heart in Forrester Research estimates that 55 percent of us will have some sort of interactive television device by 2005. The question is: which technology will determine the future of interactive viewing? Will people use their televisions as they use computers today, surfing the Web with set-top boxes, or will they, as Klein hopes, use their Internet connections to watch televisionlike content on their home and office computers?
Klein’s gamble, however, is based on a risk even greater than his read of what consumers are likely to accept. FeedRoom will succeed only if a significant portion of the U.S. population linked to the Internet is willing to switch to a more expensive connection. Most people now go on-line by using a dial-up modem and conventional telephone line, a system that is speedy enough for transferring text but that, because of the digital density of complex images or video, tend to jam when users try to send and receive large files.
The success of FeedRoom depends on a large-scale consumer switch-over to broadband Internet connections, which utilize the broader bandwidth provided by fiber-optic cables or high-speed phone lines. Such connections are faster than dial-up connections and are far more efficient for transferring bulky visual content, known as rich text. About 31 million on-line users now have broadband access to the Internet, but this exists mostly in offices and universities, environments not particularly friendly to long spells of Internet video watching. Telephone companies, cable-television companies, and other communications giants are all engaged in a brutal competition over whose broadband cables will eventually prevail among all consumers. Klein is betting that the industry will sort itself out soon enough for FeedRoom to be in the best position to profit.
"Narrow-band Web is missing the emotive power of video," says Klein, who predicts that 27 million American homes will have broadband connections by 2002. "Video is the Esperanto of communication. It crosses language borders. Watching a volcano explode in Japan, you don’t need a lot of words to understand what’s going on. Video has the power to incite emotion and curiosity, the desire to talk and share and communicate."
If Klein is nervous about the risks, he hides it well. He strolls through the FeedRoom office like an enthusiastic camp counselor making the bunk-house rounds, greeting each of his sixty or so employees by name. (The FeedRoom crew later confirms that this happens even when reporters aren’t around.) Klein usually leaves his door open so he can listen and contribute to the office banter — and he is the office table-hockey champion.
In fact, the atmosphere at FeedRoom is not all that different from that of a place like Brown’s student-run commercial radio station, WBRU, where Klein got his media start. One of his more notorious live broadcasts there was with U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, who walked out of the studio in the middle of the interview after a nineteen-year-old Klein began hounding him about the size of the defense budget.
" ’BRU was just a lot of fun," says Klein, employing a phrase he uses to sum up nearly every experience, from his puppy’s house-training to making documentaries about the Persian Gulf War. "It was this ongoing party with a mission." Despite irritating Muskie — or perhaps because of it — Klein was named the station’s news director during his sophomore year. As a junior he became general manager, helping the station turn a profit of nearly $100,000.
After college, Klein got his introduction to television in a job he describes as "general, all-purpose, you-name-it, do-everything slave labor" at Providence’s ABC affiliate station. His duties included taping the earpiece wire down the anchor’s back, picking up lunch for the news staff, and feeding the TelePrompTer, but within a few months, he’d also learned the basics of video production. He made his on-air debut when a reporter quit on short notice: a haircut and a new suit led to a two-week stint before the camera. Six months later, Klein, at twenty-two, was producing the six-o’clock evening news.
He arrived at CBS in New York City in 1982. By this time, Klein had become intrigued with storytelling techniques that minimized the presence of the journalist and allowed the video footage to tell much of the story. In his job as a producer for 48 Hours, he began to experiment with such techniques, relying on his experience with screenwriting, which had been a sideline since his days at Brown. (Klein has written fourteen screenplays, including those for Buffalo Soldiers, a TNT movie about an African-American U.S. Army Cavalry unit, and an early script of what became Polygram’s Return to Paradise.) "As a screenwriter," he says, "you learn, hopefully, how to milk drama from very little." In the early 1990s, 48 Hours was composed of a series of six-minute pieces that worked around a central theme. "I was realizing," Klein says, "that those six-minute pieces had a lot of unexplored drama that could be extended."TTo flesh out that drama, Klein proposed keeping the entire hour-long program focused on a single story. CBS let him try it, and the change brought the show back from the brink of cancellation. During Klein’s years at 48 Hours, the series earned close to thirty Emmy awards. Dan Rather, who hosts the hour, describes Klein as "a superb writer and producer, one of the most talented and creative young people of his generation to work in television news."
Klein took his approach a step further with Before Your Eyes, a cinema verité series for CBS. He would catch wind of a developing story and send crews out to follow real-life events as they developed. When the story concluded, he edited it down to a two-hour news drama with no anchors or reporters framing the story. One episode, "A Heart for Olivia," tracked a couple whose unborn child would need a heart transplant immediately upon birth. Another followed an HIV-positive ten-year-old girl. Although some critics complained that Before Your Eyes was sometimes marred by overly intrusive and stylized storytelling, the series was widely praised as a bold experiment for network television.
In 1996, Klein took a break from his role as a storytelling producer, and, in his own words, "became a suit." He accepted a position as executive vice president of CBS News, overseeing all the station’s prime-time news programming from the CBS Evening News to 60 Minutes. Two years later, in October 1998, he left the network to start FeedRoom, recruiting such seasoned network television executives as former NBC vice president Matthew Shapiro, who oversees FeedRoom’s business development, and former CBS vice president Jay Fine, FeedRoom’s chief technology officer.
If the FeedRoom management team has as much success attracting Web users as it has had drawing investors, it is bound to succeed. The company’s initial round of capital came from such giants as Intel, Ridgewood Capital, I-Hatch Ventures, and Angel Investors, as well as from smaller investors like Robert Capital Management, which is headed by Brown Chancellor Stephen Robert ’62. More recent investment has come from Warburg Pincus and such media conglomerates as NBC and Tribune Ventures. Klein and his colleagues say they have raised enough money to keep FeedRoom afloat for two years without advertising, if necessary.
To supply content for the site, Klein has worked out deals with thirty-two television stations around the country, including those owned by the NBC television-station group and Tribune Broadcasting. Thanks to these contracts, FeedRoom has access to video from almost half the country’s television markets. In return for providing video, the stations will get FeedRoom-designed Web sites and will share in the company’s advertising revenue. Attracting such revenue is key to the success of companies on the Web, and software will eventually allow FeedRoom to assemble both content and ads to match each return viewer’s preferences, as determined from the person’s previous choices at the site.
Critics of the FeedRoom concept fear that citizens’ ability to pick and choose their news will erode their sense of community. "The journalist is always wrestling with the issue of the viewers’ need to know versus their want to know," acknowledges Klein. "Somebody once asked me, ‘Is this [convergence technology] going to erode whatever national conversation we have going now — some sort of communal water cooler where we’re all basically on the same page?’ And I say, ‘Good. Whose water cooler is it anyway, where people are talking about JonBenet?’ No water cooler I’ve been around. Let’s widen the scope."
"You have to find ways to embrace new technology," says CBS News president Andrew Heyward. "I think there are plenty of people out there who enjoy the passive experience of traditional TV viewing, so we’ll still have an audience." But he admits that sites like FeedRoom may produce "a different kind of American, where everyone gets only the news he or she wants. The twentieth century was marked by collective, communal news media, and that is undoubtedly changing as we head into the twenty-first."