KEEPIN' IT ON THE DOWNLOAD

When--or if--the Discovery blasts off this week, cyberspace will have all the angles covered. AOL--fresh from its highly acclaimed continent-to-continent coverage of the Live 8 concert--will carry feeds from one camera beneath the engines, another attached to the external fuel tank, another with a long-range view of the launch and a fourth parked on a nearby beach. AOL's users can watch live from the lens of their choice. And if they miss the historic launch (NASA's return to space after the Columbia tragedy two years ago), no worries. They can access repeat streams of video almost instantly. For space-loving insomniacs, AOL will offer round-the-clock video streams of Discovery's crew weightlessly going about their daily routine. Not to be outdone, CBSNews.com, CBS's newly relaunched broadband site, will feature mission downloads, too--and it will link you to a "space consultant" for his expert perspective.

That's "digitainment"! Just a half decade after the last digital-entertainment boom went bust, along with the Internet bubble, downloadable and streamed entertainment--from live events to animation to video news and sports and games--is back. The catalyst: broadband, with its capacity to carry so-called rich media, like full-motion, television-quality video, and deliver it almost instantaneously to computer screens. As of December, more than half of U.S. homes were wired with the high-speed pipeline to the Net. Online audiences are surging (5 million-strong for AOL's Live 8 concert coverage). Advertising revenue and download dollars are flooding onto the Web. And media giants, wireless-telecom titans and broadcast-news operations are racing to get a piece of the action. The steadily shrinking music industry, reeling from digital piracy, is staking its recovery on a rapidly emerging legitimate cybermusic market based on microtransactions (99 cents to download a song). And record labels also are now aggressively converting their massive libraries of music videos, once given away to promote records, into a solid-gold business of downloads to computers and cell phones. "Everybody is recognizing it's for real," says Jon Miller, CEO of AOL. "You need to be in the game."

A Who's Who of Media, both old and new, are taking to the field. Verizon has jumped in with "Vcast" for wireless on-demand delivery of video clips ranging from ESPN to Nickelodeon, even "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." Earlier this month Intel teamed up with actor Morgan Freeman to unveil ClickStar, a venture to deliver online movies. Days later, Viacom-owned CBS relaunched its CBS News Web site as a 24-hour digital network. The move followed the company's creation of a digital-media division in March for all of CBS's new-media properties, including CBS Sports Line.com and UPN.com. Rupert Murdoch, the global media mogul, is making the boldest play. Two weeks ago, his News Corp., which owns the Fox empire in the United States, established Fox Interactive Media, combining the company's Fox News.com, Fox Sports.com and Fox.com sites. "We should build rich-media sites in all our content areas," says Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s No. 2. "When it comes to news and sports, we have more content than perhaps anyone in the world. We should begin taking advantage of that [online]."

Murdoch wasted little time bulking up. Doling out $580 million last week, he bought Intermix Media, which owns My Space.com, a music-oriented social networking site that boasts 22.5 million registered users.

The frenzy of aggressive bets may seem like Digital Hollywood 2.0 to close observers. In the go-go era of the Internet boom, online entertainment ventures sprouted like the tulip craze. They bore names like Digital Entertainment Network, FasTV and Pseudo.com. DEN had big-bucks backing from corporate and Wall Street elites like Microsoft and Chase. Media giants caught the bug, too. Disney weighed in with grandiose plans to build Go.com into a leading Web portal. Murdoch cobbled together News America Digital Publishing and tapped his son James to run it.

Then came the apocalypse and most of them fizzled, unable to attract advertisers or an audience. Boosters say the Internet simply wasn't ready for prime time, largely because of technology lags. The number of broadband-wired homes was negligible, the argument goes. In addition, the idea of online entertainment was too strange and new for consumers who'd known only television, movies and View-Masters. "Consumer behavior wasn't going to change overnight," says Jim Ramo, CEO of the downloading service Movielink.com. The digitainment pioneers were ahead of their time. But "it's here; it has arrived," says Bob Bowman, CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media.

As a business, MLB.com, the official Web site of Major League Baseball, is a grand slam. The site distributes some 1.5 million video and audio streams a day of live games, clips, commentary and downloads, he says. A lot of it is free--at least to consumers. It's supported by advertising that's soaring 30 to 40 percent a year, according to Bowman. But baseball enthusiasts also are paying for access to content. By the year-end, the site will have 1.2 million to 1.3 million paying subscribers, generating annual revenue increases of 50 percent. But digitainment's watershed came on July 2, when AOL drew 5 million to its ubiquitous coverage of Live 8. "The Net outperformed all other media" (read: MTV and satellite radio broadcaster Sirius), says Bill Wilson, a top AOL programming exec. "The Internet was the preferred medium." MTV, for one, disagrees. "I have no problem taking heat [for] our coverage of the event itself," says Van Toffler, MTV Networks president. He adds, however, that MTV and its sibling network VH1 attracted a massive audience, too--a total of 18 million viewers--to their coverage. In addition, Toffler said, MTV helped drive audience viewers to AOL because the network didn't have cyber rights to the event. "The audience wants to surf, often simultaneously between the [TV and computer] screens," says Toffler. "What it's about for us is a multiplatform approach to music and entertainment."

Truth be told, no one needs a seminal moment for digitainment more than AOL. The Internet giant is in the early days of a major shift in strategy from a subscription-based service to a free, advertiser-supported portal whose fortunes will largely rise or fall on the size of its audience. Of all the Web sites that crashed and burned when the Internet boom went bust, AOL stands out. Although it is obviously a powerful survivor, AOL is still recovering from the monumental collapse of its $350 billion megamerger with Time Warner and the transition from dial-up to broadband. As they say in digitainment, break a leg.

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