There is nothing more frustrating for Macintosh users or those who use the Firefox browser than going to a video site and hitting a wall demanding Windows and the Internet Explorer browser. But when the Associated Press’ Online Video Network first launched last spring in conjunction with Microsoft, the requirements for users were just that: Windows and Internet Explorer. The idea behind the OVN is that Microsoft provides the video hosting, technology and ad sales; AP provides the video content; and small and medium news site partners show the videos on their sites for a split of revenue with Microsoft and the AP.
We raised a stink about compatibility issues here on MediaShift, and even ran a blacklist of other video services that had similar restrictions (I’ll be updating that soon). Now, I’m happy to report that the Associated Press and Microsoft have developed a cross-platform video player based on Flash technology that is in beta testing, and likely will launch in October.
Sue Cross (pictured below), vice president of U.S. online newspapers at the AP, told me that the cross-platform video player was the plan all along, but they wanted to get a video player out there to catch the wave of online video popularity.
“[The cross-platform player] is in beta on 17 sites, the sites are testing it, and this is what we intended all along, to make the player completely compatible,” Cross said. “The current beta covers Firefox on PC, Firefox on Mac, Safari on Mac, and at some point will support Netscape on Mac. We expect a full rollout of a compatible player in October. So far, the tests have been going well, we haven’t heard any issues from the testers.”
On top of that good news comes word from MSNBC.com, still a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC News, that they will also implement the cross-platform video player so their vast number of web visitors will be able to see video online using Macs and alternate browsers. Charlie Tillinghast, president and publisher of MSNBC.com, confirmed to me via email that his site would also switch over to the new cross-platform video player, once some technical issues were worked out relating to video advertising.
“We have been pushing for a player that works on Mac and Firefox for a long time and are eager to see it launch,” Tillinghast said. “Some people assume that Microsoft, and by extension MSNBC, are anti-Mac, but it should be noted that Microsoft makes an outstanding version of Office for the Mac, including the Entourage email system. I purchased a new iMac in anticipation of this release and we have several in use at MSNBC itself.”
That kind of endorsement for the Mac would even make Apple honcho Steve Jobs blush. One of the holdouts from the AP Online Video Network was Cox Newspapers, largely due to the compatibility issues with the video player. Leon Levitt, vice president of digital media at Cox who is also on the digital advisory board for the AP, told me Cox was now testing the new video player and would add it once it was ready for prime time.
“I think the AP digital advisory board has been very helpful in not only framing critical issues but also in pushing the AP digital agenda forward,” Levitt said via email.
The move to a cross-platform video player makes sense in the new world order online, where proprietary, closed systems turn off users, and open systems with less restrictions win big. For instance, video sharing site YouTube has shot to the top of video sites online thanks to cross-platform Flash video players and easy uploading of videos, while MTV’s closed Overdrive online video service has stalled in popularity — one of the factors in Viacom CEO Tom Freston’s recent dismissal. (Note that MTV too has recently opened up its video service to Macs and Firefox as well.)
Despite making strides forward with the cross-platform player, the AP Online Video Network still has some challenges ahead. While Cross told me the AP has signed up 1,400 news sites as partners, many of these sites still haven’t implemented the video player or promoted it enough to drive traffic.
Cross said there’s a real learning curve for getting the news sites to promote the video and for site visitors to get used to seeing AP video on those sites.
“There’s a learning curve with video on sites that haven’t carried video, and then there’s a general adoption and then it grows exponentially as people get used to a site as being a source for video,” she said.
Cross noted that the entire OVN served up between 1.3 million and 1.4 million video streams last week, mainly coming from 25% to 30% of those 1,400 sites. That’s a nice start, but has a long way to go to catch up to the amount of news video served at sites such as MSNBC.com and CNN.com. Because of the slow uptake and promotion of OVN at many news sites, the amount of revenues split has been pretty low so far, according to Cross.
“As the implementation is going up, so does the revenue,” Cross said. “I don’t think at this point you’d expect this to be a huge money maker for anyone.”
One fan of the OVN is New York AM radio station 1010 WINS. Tim McAteer, managing editor for online content at 1010wins.com, told me via email that the revenues weren’t the only factor in getting video content up on his site.
“We really believe that the AP Online Video Network has added an extra dimension to our coverage,” McAteer said. “Since we are a radio station we did not have video assets. AP helps us compete in the Internet video arena which is so key to web users now. Since we jumped onboard last winter we have seen our video downloads increase tremendously. Besides the video player we try to also implement the individual video links inside our stories. I would not say that video has brought substantial revenue. It helps cover some AP costs but we are more concerned about giving our users the best information we can provide in as many interactive formats as we can.”
One other problem in the OVN is that many established sites already have their own video player in place, so it could compete with an AP video player — even within one website. For instance, when the Cox news sites do start using the new cross-platform AP player, they will continue to use their own video player for local video and ads.
“As far as integration, we plan to keep the AP player separate from our internal player,” said Tonya Echols, director of business intelligence at CoxNet. “Integrating the two together is not possible at this time.”
However, that might change in the future, as AP and Microsoft develop Phase Two of the OVN, which will allow sites to include a “local channel” in the video player, with their own video and video ads. In that channel, all the revenues would go to the local site, perhaps with a handling fee to Microsoft or the AP for helping to serve ads. Cross says this Phase Two should be ready by early 2007.
Plus, there’s even a Phase Three of the OVN, where sites would be able to syndicate their videos to other sites. This would be a self-syndication service, where sites could take their own initiative to sell videos to other sites — sort of an open wire service for sites to run on their own.
“In Phase Three we would let them syndicate content to other sites,” Cross said. “So if they have video of national importance they would handle that through the network. They would control where they would want to syndicate it. We would control what would be presented as AP video, but what they would want to syndicate would be up to them.”
No word yet on when Phase Three would come out. But first, the AP is trying to improve the uptake of video on existing and future sites, and has rolled out a promotional tool that shows video in a rotating animation. (The screen shot at left shows the implementation at Cleveland.com.) Cross says this has helped drive twice the traffic to video on sites that have used it.
Next comes the new cross-platform player that will satisfy the needs of the lion’s share of viewers. And in 2007, news sites will be able to post their own video and serve up video ads. These are steps in the right direction, and perhaps will allow small and medium news sites the chance to catch the online video craze before it whips right by them.
What do you think? Is your site part of the AP OVN, and what has your experience been? Do you think this network can help bring in video revenues for smaller news sites? Have you watched video on the OVN? Share your thoughts in the comments below.