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Pod Person: I, Cringely Changes, and Yet Remains the Same

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

The first time any reader asked me if I was planning to become a podcaster was October 29, 2004. That reader was specifically interested in video blogging, which he claimed would replace broadcast television, but he referred to it as "podcasting," so that still counts. Here is my reply: "There is something that is being totally missed by these people and that's production values. Look at the viewership of cable access channels -- almost zip. And that's simply because the programming is so crappy. Money shows in TV and the more you spend per hour the better it looks, which is why people will still be watching network TV. Now there are exceptions. I like to think that my own stuff is generally better than it ought to be for the money involved, but I'm an exception. There will be other exceptions, too. But for the most part there WON'T be exceptions and most of the video bloggers will be blogging to themselves. I see this as growing to be at most three to five percent of the market. Now it can be a very important three to five percent, talking to a very valuable audience about very important topics, but it won't replace 'Seinfeld.'"

Nine months later, the Internet world is again in flux, and I find myself not only getting ready to be a podcaster, but a video blogger to boot. What happened?

For one thing, the market changed. More properly, the market expanded, and to not follow that expansion just for some artistic sensibility would be stupid, and Mrs. Cringely didn't raise no stupid boys.

So here's what's coming relatively soon in this space. First, there is NerdTV, my downloadable TV show that I have been suffering to make happen for three years now. The concept of NerdTV hasn't changed a bit, but once again, I was three years ahead of the curve and only just now has the market caught up.

What's changed since 2002 when I first proposed the project is a dramatic expansion of broadband Internet access and a dramatic lowering of both bandwidth and distribution costs. I make a distinction between bandwidth and distribution expenses because there are technologies like Bit Torrent that can take much of the expense out of video distribution by removing some of the bandwidth demand. I say SOME of the bandwidth demand because Bit Torrent is a fickle lover and if I throw a couple hundred episodes of NerdTV up there, only the most recent are likely to be broadly seeded, meaning the archive distribution costs fall back on me.

Yes, me.

Even with 355 megabits-per-second of Internet bandwidth, PBS can't take a risk of derailing the NewsHour or crippling PBSKids if NerdTV happens to be a surprise hit, so the real heavy lifting for NerdTV will be done through a network of distributed servers I've created as a kind of "poor man's Akamai." My distribution cost using this system, by the way, works out to be approximately ONE PERCENT of Akamai's retail price, which shows how much profit there is in that business, or should be.

NerdTV is pretty much as I described it back in 2002: a downloadable video show that features long-form interviews with notable nerds. I was definitely ahead of the curve with that download feature. What has changed about the show is just the episode length, which is now about an hour up from 20 or so minutes, and the bandwidth required, now 183 kilobits-per-second up from 128. Pilot after pilot showed that 20 minutes simply wasn't enough time while an hour feels about right. And the extra bandwidth was always needed for the 320-by-240 video window, only now it is finally cheap enough that I can afford it.

NerdTV is still encoded in MPEG-4 and still uses an applet player, only the applet is now Open Source, not from IBM, and comes with the assistance of mediaframe.org.

There was nothing wrong with IBM. Far from it -- IBM Research was a terrific partner. But big companies have big licensing issues and smaller organizations sometimes give more personal support.

The reason I mention all this now instead of September 6, when NerdTV will finally launch, is because on July 13th we'll be announcing it to the rest of the world along with the PBS non-Internet fall program lineup. This will happen at the Television Critics' Association meeting, where 300 critics sit tight in an L.A. hotel for two weeks and the networks trot out their stars. I'm on, believe it or not, right after a panel discussion with Carl Reiner, Sid Ceasar, and Mel Brooks.

I'm not sure that announcing NerdTV to a bunch of TV critics will help a show that will live or die on the Internet, but it gives me a chance to talk about how television is changing to people who watch it for a living. And it is a real honor to have the network think highly enough of NerdTV to make the effort of showing it to a broader audience. The announcement and how it is taking place say everything about how quickly television is evolving.

But my comments about television production values haven't changed. In the history of (primarily commercial) television, throwing a lot of money at the screen in the form of high production values has often distracted us from the parallel reality that the actual content of many broadcast shows is, well, drivel. There's room, then, for alternate programming that replaces drivel with ideas and takes the time to both expound those ideas and to locate an audience that cares.

Or that's the theory -- a theory we'll soon begin to test.

While NerdTV pays some attention to production values (the shows are shot in progressive-scanned 24 frames-per-second video using a Panasonic AG-DVX100A camcorder, which is among the best you can buy) success, if it comes, will be based on the quality of my guests. I promise you plenty of interesting guests.

And NerdTV will be distributed under a Creative Commons license so if you like some of what you see, you can redistribute it or even edit your own non-commercial version.

Figuring that people will grab video clips and send them to their friends as e-mail attachments, we're even trying to make that easier by offering two clips of our own from every show. These will be called "The Juicy Bit" (Bill Joy explaining how he was fired from the International House of Pancakes), and "The Nerdy Bit" (how Don Knuth asked for a copy of the MacPaint source code so Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson had to essentially recreate it because you don't say no to Don Knuth).

If one of these stories sounds interesting and the other doesn't, then you already know whether or not you are a nerd.

But NerdTV isn't really podcasting, is it? Well, we'll be doing that, too. It requires almost no effort at all to offer audio-only feeds of NerdTV shows, so we'll be doing those in AAC, MP3, and ogg vorbis formats, again starting September 6th. And since I've already invested in a very fine Neumann microphone, I may as well do audio-only versions of these columns, too, which will launch at about the same time.

I, Cringely won't be changing much except that it will probably look a little more bloggish than it does now. Remember that this column predates blogs by years and years and while we've had primitive RSS distribution since 1998, I still tend to think of it as a column, not a blog. But the market screams for blogs. As a blog I could be counted by Google News, which presently notices only when other, more newsworthy, sites mention this column. As a blog we might have substantially higher readership. So a blog we'll be.

But don't be surprised if it still looks a lot like a column.

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