TV Goes Online–in a Flash

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When the Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards are presented at next month’s CES confab in Las Vegas, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will honor a largely uncelebrated driver of the past year’s explosion in broadband video. In many ways, 2006 was the year of Flash video.

Thanks to its ease of use and ubiquity on standard Web browsers, Flash, a programming suite from Macro media, has become the format of choice among TV networks and advertisers for streaming video online.

From the video-sharing phenomenon YouTube to ABC’s pioneering experiments with streaming Lost and other primetime programs at ABC.com, Flash has been a major component in the migration of video content from the tube to the Web.

Since Macromedia introduced the format in the late 1990s as a means of displaying vector animation on the Web, Flash evolved to enable the display of video and quickly became a standard plug-in on such browsers as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox.

Whereas other formats like Real Networks’ Real Video and Apple’s Quicktime often require users to install software, Flash comes pre-installed, which means your grandmother can watch an episode of Desperate Housewives without having to download a player. It also enables advertisers to run video ads on Websites with ease. (While the player is free, Macromedia sells Flash software for creating content.)

With networks and advertisers looking to get their content “embedded in as many browsers as possible,” says Dan Rayburn, executive VP of Streaming Media.com, Flash offers an easy solution.

Indeed, it was that simplicity that catapulted YouTube into the Zeitgeist this year. Using Flash software, YouTube introduced an innovation that allows even tech-challenged users to embed its videos on their own Websites. The viral proliferation of those videos propelled the site past similar Flash-enabled video-sharing communities. By midyear, YouTube was streaming more than 100 million clips a day, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.

Although Google’s momentous acquisition of YouTube in October raised eyebrows for its $1.65-billion price tag, Adobe Systems, the software giant behind Photoshop and Acrobat, paid more than twice that—$3.4 billion—to acquire Macro media in December 2005.

Last week, Adobe announced total quarterly revenue of $682.2 million and credited its purchase of Macromedia with helping to boost revenue by 34% year-to-year.

Flash goes wide

In the past several months, all of the networks with broadband players on their Websites (with the exception of Fox) have adopted Flash.

Although Flash does not currently support live-streaming content, as Windows Media and Real Player do, it will in the new year, says StreamingMedia’s Rayburn.

Also, Flash is not equipped with digital-rights–management technology, which protects content from unauthorized duplication.

But the role of Flash in advertising will only grow in the coming year. Advertisers have begun to place complex Flash video ads on Websites that literally appear to break through the screen.

Online media company Rovion has been peddling its InPerson technology, which embeds a transparent Flash window on Web pages. The result is that an actor (who has been filmed against a blue screen) appears to be standing in front of a Web page and addressing the user.

So don’t be alarmed when celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse pops up at BarnesandNoble.com and says, “Bam!” That’s just the future of TV.

Additional reporting by Anne Becker

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