By
msnbc.com

Most nights, there’s just a green glow. For your ears, there’s the occasional hissing sound of cars slipping by, the Doppler effect creating a soundscape that’s eerily close to a restful seashore. Until the waves are interrupted by bomb explosions and the boom of anti-aircraft guns. For years, Webcams have serviced the voyeuristic tendencies of Internet users. But now, similar technology is allowing Web users to see raw video of the battle in Iraq, letting news junkies look in on Baghdad for themselves.

THE WIDESPREAD USE of Internet video, paralleling the widespread installation of broadband Internet access, has been long promised and slow to arrive. But early indications are Internet video is seeing widespread use during the early stages of the war in Iraq, as office workers without access to televisions look in on video news, and those looking for wider perspectives on war coverage seek out alternative news coverage.

On Internet discussion boards devoted to war news junkies, participants urge each other to visit the British Broadcasting Service, the Canadian Broadcasting Service, and Arab-based Al-Jazeera — which all can be watched for free online. The Internet provides access to diverse news coverage that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago.

But letting surfers look in on an open camera trained on a live battlefield takes information access to another level. MSNBC.com provides one such camera on its Live Video page. So does CBSNews.com.

Most times, the video is merely a curiosity, hauntingly quiet and even serene. But when bombs start falling, the camera reveals a hauntingly realistic look at the war.

“No talking .... Just the noise and lights,” wrote one watcher to an Internet discussion board on Slashdot.org. “In a way it shows how scary it must be to be there.”

RAW VIDEO FROM REUTERS

The Reuters News Service is also providing raw content on its Web site, allowing Net users to watch hours of video — sometimes just minutes old — shot by a dozen Reuters videographers who are inside Iraq.

Reuters Webcam-style video also includes an unmanned camera affixed to the roof of the Ministry of Information building in Baghdad — the only government-sanctioned location for live pictures.

Cables to the camera were cut at one point, said Rich Sabreen, executive vice president and global head of media for Reuters. He said a technician trying to repair them was chased from the roof by an armed guard.

“It’s extraordinarily dangerous,” he said. “We expect at some point the Information Ministry will itself be a target.”

Reuters generally sells such video to news organizations around the world, who edit it and supply “voice overs,” or verbal commentary. But now it’s available to consumers for free, in lightly edited form, with no commentary.

“Documentarians have cinema verite,” said Sabreen. “This is TV news verite. It allows you to be your own TV news director.”

The service, called “Reuters Raw Video,” launched last week — and without promotion, about 225,000 visitors came to the site last Friday, Sabreen said.

There have been additional, non-commercial efforts to transmit live video out of Iraq. Much like the work of blogger “Salam Pax,” who authors a daily diary of life in Baghdad, there have been efforts to place Webcams around Baghdad by a group calling itself Webcaminiraq.org. But technology troubles have so far frustrated their efforts. A spokesperson said in an e-mail that the group is still hoping to get the cameras working.

While the availability of such unedited, Internet video is unique, Gartner G2 analyst Laura Behrens is doubtful it will have a big impact on war watchers.

“My own gut tells me that the notion that you could look at these pictures would be enough to make people go look. But fairly quickly the content of that video has to be compelling. A static camera showing a static shot becomes pretty uninteresting pretty quickly,” she said, “The television people learned that a long time ago.”

And the alternative sources of news, such as al-Jazeera, won’t have a wide-scale impact, either, she thinks.

“There might be novelty in it early as people discover it. But you can get a lot of al-Jazeera on the (U.S.-based) cable channels. The proportion of consumers who are interested enough to seek it out and stay with it past the novelty is pretty slim.”

That leaves Internet video streamed by major media outlets, which are hoping the war gives a much-needed boost to the business of streaming video. A variety of major media firms, including CNN.com and ABCNews.com, now charge for their video content. And just in time for the conflict, Yahoo.com launched its own video subscription service, including video from ABC, CBS, and Fox.

Maria Bumatay, spokesperson for Internet traffic measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings, said her firm doesn’t yet have data on video viewership, but she didn’t think there had been a huge spike in traffic.

“There has not been that one video bite that everyone needs to see yet,” she said.

But there is a large appetite for such video, Behrens said, among office employees who have access to a computer, but not a television or radio, while at work. Still, even with a myriad of video content that includes duplication of cable TV channels, foreign media, Web cams, and independent journalists, Behrens is not ready to declare the current conflict “the Internet video” war.

“It’s too soon to know,” she said. “In a week or two when we have good numbers, we’ll have a better sense of that. But we don’t have numbers yet to understand how it’s all working.”

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