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The Rise of the Netjockey

New software lets anyone create live talk shows for the Internet.
August 10, 2007

Now anyone can become the host of a live internet talk show with software from the Hollywood-based startup company Operator 11. Using a home computer fitted with a webcam and headset, hosts, called netjockeys, use Operator 11’s web software to produce, mix, and broadcast shows. In a new twist on the online video model, netjockeys can patch in live video of audience members, who thus become guest stars on the show without having to share a studio with the host. The software further encourages social interaction by running a chat room in conjunction with each show, where people can make comments without appearing on camera.

Live on camera: An Operator 11 netjockey, above, hosts his show from his home computer. Audience members can be guests on the show, or participate in the accompanying chat. This particular host decided to blur his face with a video effects filter.

Operator 11 CEO Josh Harris says he sees the company as a video version of MySpace. While some shows have themes – comedy, music and video games are popular subjects – people are primarily using it for video chat. (Operator 11 does host some off-color chats, but Harris says all shows are monitored for content the company deems inappropriate.) On a particularly busy night this month, 130 shows were created.

The band Killola, for example, uses its Operator 11 shows to stay in touch with fans, sometimes hosting shows from their laptops while on the road. “We’ve been doing … chats for a while,” drummer Dan Grody says, “but never had this kind of platform to use.” Fans can watch the shows live via the Operator 11 Web site or the band’s MySpace page, and can appear in them if they have Operator 11 accounts.

Though the site’s platform puts a lot of control in the hands of the users, Harris says this is currently a blessing and a curse. “We’re asking too much of the audience at this point,” he says. “…You’ve got to have the webcam, the right computer, the will to do it, and the ability to get over a little bit of a hump in using web software.” Would-be users have to learn, for example, how to use the Operator 11 interface to mix feeds from different participants. Though project manager Guillermo Platas has been streamlining and improving the user interface, he says it’s still difficult at first for most newcomers. Harris says users typically start by watching shows and participating in chat, before becoming full-fledged producers. “On the third day,” he says, “you can see they’ve discovered lighting, makeup, and hair, and have figured out how to produce their own shows.”

The software is still in the early stages of development and kinks still need to be worked out – both for users learning to operate the system and for the technology. Many producers – even those who work for the company – still have trouble finding the right audio levels, for example, and there are sometimes slight delays between feeds. There can also be a wide range of video quality during a single show, since the Operator 11 software adjusts the quality of the video feed from one participant to another depending on the speed of their Internet connection. Platas says another challenge will be scalability: All the switching is handled on the server side, and, with increased participation, the load could get heavy.

“To do this right, you want adequate capacity and adequate quality of service,” says Jon Peha, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Interactive video is more demanding than other forms of streaming media, he says. Good video requires a much higher data rate than streaming audio, and is less tolerant of data loss. Unlike video sites such as YouTube, which download a video before showing it, Operator 11’s model can’t tolerate significant delays without destroying the flow of a show.

The company, however, seems committed to overcoming all the potential difficulties. In addition to addressing the technical issues, they are working on producing sample shows to act as guides for fledgling producers.

Meanwhile, Platas says, the company plans to release an updated version of the Operator 11 player and studio applications within the next few weeks. Harris hopes that, eventually, targeted advertising will make the site profitable.

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