'Next' up on the Internet

Special to The Times

Before the dot-com dream imploded, visionary twentysomething chief executives promised to bring innovative broadband entertainment programming to life on the Internet.

RealNetworks and Venice's Gigantic Entertainment recently launched an original series of music videos of live performances called "The Next," which breathes new life into the temporarily deferred broadband entertainment dream.

Each biweekly installment of "The Next" is a video of a live-music performance from a cutting-edge act on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough. The first episode was a performance by L.A. hip-hop group Blackalicious from the Christmas concert by KCRW-FM (89.9) at Universal Amphitheater.

Kinky and Beth Orton are currently featured, with the Vines, Pete Yorn, Fischerspooner, Zero 7 and more to follow. While RealNetworks has long provided music and music video content on its Web site, "The Next" is a fresh venture using state-of-the-art technology aimed at providing a 30-minute concert music video experience tailored toward users with DSL or cable modems.

"We really thought about what the end-user experience was going to be here: Let's get the sound right, let's make the images something that makes sense in this format, let's optimize for broadband and make something that's a showcase and get as good a dose of these bands as you can get," says Erik Flannigan, RealNetworks' vice president of media programming.

The driving creative force and director of each episode is Gigantic's Kevin Kerslake, who has directed commercials, action sports movies and music videos for groups including the Rolling Stones, Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kerslake shoots the episodes utilizing improvements in Web-based video technology.

"In the past you had to be much more tentative stylistically and cautious about pace and exposures," says Kerslake. "The new technology lets you get back to the aesthetic that is called for when you're shooting bands that are more energetic.... The computer's not going to freak out because there are too many cuts per minute."

After quickly downloading the free Real Player and restarting my computer -- a PC with DSL modem -- I visited RealNetworks' Web site, www.real.com, to check out the Blackalicious concert. I was immediately impressed by the site's intuitive interface and ease of use. In a few clicks, I found "The Next" section of the site and clicked on the broadband viewing option; the video launched without any delay.

In the first few seconds, it was clear that I was having the best video-viewing experience I'd ever had on the Web. There were no buffering delays, I didn't have to download the video, and the sound mix immediately jumped out at me. Gigantic optimizes the sound mix for the Web -- and you can tell. The mix was crisp and the low-end tones so crucial to the hip-hop experience were there in abundance, booming out from even my puny stock speakers.

The visual mix was excellent as well. Kerslake and his camera operators deployed nine cameras to capture the event, and the active, quick-paced editing and camera movements nicely complemented the vibe of the beats. The image is not broadcast or cable television quality, and certainly not DVD level. But it is good and doesn't detract from the experience of watching a commercial-free concert.

Dimly lighted areas of the stage are sometimes hard to see and people and objects in the background can look slightly pixilated. Pausing and restarting the video didn't cause any delays, and when I dragged the playback bar backward and forward to skip around within the performance, it was only a few seconds before the video and audio kicked back in.

Like most computer users, I multi-task, so as a test I downloaded MP3s and opened separate Web browsers and three other programs while watching. This had no impact on the playback or quality of "The Next." It's better than anything else I've experienced on the Net in terms of streaming video. "The Next" is not a replacement for live television, nor is it meant to be. But the slick, entertaining, high-quality visual and audio aesthetics combined to provide a pleasurable viewing experience worth checking out. It makes performances available at any time, free; it's easy to use, lacks commercials and delivers on the broken promises of fallen Net kings.

"The Next" may indeed just be the next big thing.


'The Next'

What: Thirty-minute concert videos on the Internet featuring acts that may be on the edge of a mainstream music breakthrough. Beth Orton and Kinky performances are currently featured. Upcoming acts include the Vines, Fischerspooner, Zero 7 and Pete Yorn.

Where: Online at www.real.com.

When: Concerts have two-week runs on the site.

Equipment: DSL or cable modem is preferred, but video can be viewed with a 56K modem. Also requires Real Player software, which can be downloaded for free.

What's different: New technology allows quick cuts between many camera angles. Users with DSL or cable will experience no buffering delays. Sound mix is optimized for the Web.

Cost: No charge to view "The Next"; $11.95 per month for access to all of the RealOne Web site features.

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