I was all excited about catching the Live 8 concerts this past summer. I blocked out my day to watch the music from multiple cities unfold on TV. I have a sound system hooked up to my television, so I knew that the audio portion was going to be great. Since both MTV and VH1 were broadcasting, I figured that I could flip back and forth from one station to the other to catch the bands that I was interested in. Boy, was I disappointed. The two stations shared a feed, so the video was the same. Worst of all, in an infuriating bout of stupidity both stations insisted on interrupting the music with inane chatter from VJs who didn't seem to have a clue about what they were watching. Many songs were cut off mid-tune. I can't imagine what was going through the director's mind when Pink Floyd, playing together for the first time in decades, was cut off in the middle of a song to go to an interview. Ugh.
I witnessed on television what I've often been critical about in Web multimedia use in business: the inability to search and quickly click to the precise part of content that I'm interested in. I've tried messing around with podcasting for things like listening to conference panels and keynotes that I missed, but my efforts always ended in frustration because I couldn't go directly to the spot in the audio that I was most interested in. In other words, I couldn't search on a big fat audio stream. Audio and video on the Web is like document retrieval in the days before full-text search. Remember when all you had to go on for a clue about a document's content was the title and perhaps a one-paragraph abstract? With little to go on, your only option was to pay and then scan an entire document with the hopes that what you really needed would be there. Usually it wasn't.
The day after Live 8, I checked out the AOL coverage online. In as many ways that MTV and VH1 messed up, AOL got right. The producers at AOL totally understood the concept of making the music searchable and offering viewers the opportunity to link to just what they are most interested in. They made each song a separate video and audio clip that could be found by searching on the band's name, song title, or other criteria. So within moments, I was listening to all of Comfortably Numb from Pink Floyd, finally catching what had rudely been cut away the evening before on TV.
Of course, music lends itself very well to offering up individual searchable files. Each song is several minutes long, the songs and bands have metadata-friendly names and other searchables such as venue played and date. This is much more difficult to do with the full audio proceedings of a conference that occurs over several days. So until someone can offer a way to search conference audio, I'm just not going to sit and listen through hours and hours to get to the good bits.
There are interesting technologies available that some forward-thinking companies are taking advantage of to transcend the linear aspect of audio and video feeds for business applications. For example, it is possible to take the closed-caption text feed of the audio portion of a television program and deliver it in chunks via RSS or aggregation services that can then be indexed and searched. This technique is often used in the financial markets, where the text of stations like MSNBC or BBC is pumped through the same news delivery systems as text-based news sources like Dow Jones, Reuters, and the AP. When a search term returns a result or an alert is triggered on the broker's screens based on the text, that portion of video can be watched.
A particularly fascinating example of technology to turn linear audio feeds into searchable content comes from Thomson Financial's delivery of corporate earnings calls. As a result of Regulation Fair Disclosure, all public companies must make their corporate conference calls with Wall Street analysts open to the public. Thomson takes the Webcast audio feeds and creates a transcript in near real time. Then, in a clever twist, the original audio is linked to the text transcript line by line so when an alert is triggered based on a keyword or phrase in the text, you just click that line of text to hear the original audio. The result is searchable audio that streams to your desktop on demand. Thomson Financial, just like AOL, has figured out how to make linear multimedia content more useful through search.
For podcasting and multimedia content delivered online to truly take off in business, innovative companies will need to follow the lead of AOL and Thomson and make audio and video search- and browse-friendly. And of course, the next time a large music happening like Live 8 comes around, I'll just skip TV and go right online.