Internet Television -- an Anniversary

When the Boomers were watching television in the early 1960s, many of their parents tried to explain what a revolution the new technology represented. The stories my parents told of families sitting around the radio -- listening, not watching -- merged in my head with talk of log cabins and wagon trains to make the era before television seem like ancient history.

Today, the generation raised on YouTube, and now using Periscope, understandably have a similar view of the time before streaming audio and video meant you could watch Game of Thrones while waiting on line at the post office.

Monday's 20th anniversary of the first internet/television broadcast provides an opportunity to help put a little piece of history into perspective.

Television Meets Cyberspace

On November 23, 1995, the ABC News overnight program World News Now, where I was a broadcast producer, was the first to stream television live over the internet. The proof-of-concept project used a donated, dedicated T-1 line and a beta-testing video-conference software developed by Cornell University.

The idea for the experiment occurred to me nearly a year earlier, when I saw that our CBS competition was airing the first television reviews I had ever seen of World Wide Web sites. Watching that segment on CBS, an idea came to me with a single, simple thought: The new medium that was emerging before our eyes was already bigger than television; so, instead of putting the internet on television, we should put television on the internet.

To accomplish this, we partnered with the Global Schoolhouse (now, where Yvonne Andres was using the internet to connect youngsters in classrooms around the world, as part of an educational outreach program. She had access to the latest innovations in video conferencing software, and she was excited about the idea of showing what it could do.

Most of us were still using telephone modems to connect to the internet at a tiny fraction of the speed we consider standard today, but they didn't provide the reliability or the bandwidth needed to stream audio and video around the world. White Pine Software, which was preparing a commercial version of Cornell's video conferencing program, offered to provide a T1 line (the "gold standard" of connectivity at the time) to help us prove the potential of internet broadcasting.

World News Now executive producer Chris Antoniacci and senior producer Terry Baker had been remarkably supportive of this crazy scheme I had been pursuing for almost a year. They even found money in the budget for us to lease an Apple Mac desktop computer, which had the built-in ability to stream video. It had been the last piece of the puzzle.

"It can't be done."

All of this took about ten months of pushing and pulling, and it felt like we were getting really close. Then, I received a telephone call at home from a conference room full of ABC executives I had never met. It was 10 AM, but for me -- someone who worked the overnight shift -- it was the "middle of the night." I was still groggy when they started firing questions: "What makes you think you can broadcast your show over the internet?"

At first, I thought I was being scolded for not having asked permission properly, but it became apparent that their question was more technical. They believed it wasn't possible. I tried explaining what we had put together, but they kept telling me I needed this piece of equipment and that piece of software. Finally, I realized the answer to their question was simple: "We leased a Macintosh."

The ABC folks on the other end of the phone were silent for what seemed like a very long time. Then, a quiet voice from what sounded like the far side of the conference table said, "If he has a Mac, he can do it."

And the rest is history...

That was the last hurdle, and it was decided we would attempt the first live internet broadcast on Thanksgiving morning. One of the segments for that day was a prerecorded interview we had conducted over the internet. The video was very low quality, sort of like the television images sent back live from the first moon landing. The audio was almost the quality of a telephone line. The connection was only good enough for either moving pictures or sound. When the guest talked, the picture froze.

When World News Now went on the air that morning with Kevin Newman and Antonio Mora as anchors, there were about a half-dozen internet viewers scattered around the world -- Norway, Australia, Canada, the U.S. Not many people had that video conferencing software, but those who did knew that history was being made. They were actually watching live television on their computers.

Newman, who conducted the interview with Andres, asked questions that were penetrating at the time, but seem quaint today -- Do you think computers will someday be used primarily as communication tools?

Already a veteran newscaster, Newman remembers the surprise of seeing, for the first time, his viewers looking back at him on the computer screen. The experience changed his view of broadcasting, he says, because he realized the internet held the potential for a new level of interactivity that could change the broadcaster's relationship to the audience.

Although the quality of the transmission was poor compared to broadcast standard, I fully expected that the technology would improve very quickly. After all, I reasoned, it was in my own lifetime that it had taken two people to tune a black-and-white television set -- one to sit on the sofa, and the other to stand behind the set (or on the roof) adjusting the antenna.

For me, the idea that we were broadcasting worldwide, directly to computer screens, without satellite feeds, was exhilarating. I already had visions of using the technology to broadcast inexpensively from remote places around the world. The next project, I thought, would be to provide live, gavel-to-gavel, internet coverage of the 1996 political conventions the following summer. The network could provide full coverage of the news without having to interrupt the revenue-producing prime-time lineup.

The future would have to wait.

Unfortunately, our experiment was short-lived, and a fuller realization of our visions of the future would have to be put on hold. Although World News Now could now be seen anywhere on the planet where internet was available, the decision-makers were unimpressed. They did not believe that anyone would ever want to watch television on a computer.

Without any promotion of the breakthrough, few noticed. The project was discontinued after about six months, and ABC did not broadcast its 1996 Presidential Election coverage globally.

The idea of internet broadcasting still seemed ridiculous to the people-in-charge. Even more ridiculous than thinking that, some day, radio listeners would be able to see the people talking to them.

Today, of course, it's hard to imagine a world where people couldn't.