USA Today reports on a test drive of Joost, the much-ballyhooed portal that promises to be the "future of television." That phrase in and of itself should be a clue as to both the strengths and limitations of a service that maintains much of what traditional video producers and advertisers cherish. Joost is amassing a library of entertainment from major U.S. television networks dating back to the 1950s, along with more recent cable television shows and news from Reuters and other sources. After a software download (natch) you get to use Joost's technology to view full-length TV shows with a minimum of in-line advertising from major corporations. Joost promises full-length movies in its mix, though one assumes that they will be either ad-supported or pay-per-view - and not usable outside of the Joost viewer, of course.
There are some key online add-ons that are supposed to jazz up the Joost offering - searchable archives, integrated chat and online community features - but for the most part Joost sounds like a fairly sealed container that allows the "television" phenomenon to be bled onto the Web in its fairly native form. With only up to three minutes of unskippable ads per offering, it's not clear that first-run, full-length television is likely to make its way into the Joost collection with any speed for producers needing a stronger revenue stream. Instead, Joost appears to be a tool for syndication rights owners to expose their libraries of older content more efficiently than via cable outlets. And with far fewer total channels than today's high-bandwidth cable offerings - which also include premium and cacheable on-demand programming - Joost is not necessarily giving younger online audiences a strong reason to shift from looking over the top of their laptop screens at television to have a closer look at Joost's offerings.
Most importantly, though, Joost is a no-op when it comes to video sharing or user-activated embedding or syndication. User community functions hang off the side of Joost's programming instead of allowing video to take its place in a myriad of user-defined contexts. Most online video viewers are not looking for this thing called "television" on their computers. The TV is the high-res appliance on the other side of the room that serves a parallel purpose to the in-your-hands experience of online content. If Joost is an attempt by TV traditionalists to have online audiences think of video on their laptops or desktop units the way that they want them to, then they are probably going to be very disappointed by the Joost experience.
There is a place for full-length programming that integrates with online audiences, but it's not likely to be in the format that experiments such as Joost have provided to date. Instead it's more likely that programming that has originated for television networks will take a parallel place to most online video for now until television producers are more willing to think more creatively about monetization models. In-line ads need to give way to parallel ads and contextual programming that can hang off the side of a TV program in much the same way that text ads, banners, scrapers, widgets and other contextual content hangs around core content on a Web page. There will still be a place for barrier ads for video, audio and text online but they will be a smaller portion of the revenue mix in most instances.
This concept is likely to feed back into television itself as display units become larger and more sophisticated. Digital TV shows are likely to be "framed" with complementary ads and content that can lure people into investigating viewing alternatives. We may also get to the point of having "this click is sponsored by..." advertising which may invite viewers to look at ads on their way from one channel to another. However it's done I believe that in-line advertising is being held onto as a security blanket right now by TV producers and ad specialists in large part because they have not invested in the skill sets that will take them beyond that model - in spite of online video's rapid growth.
Joost may enjoy some modest success at first but given the myriad of competing channels for video content - and an explosion of more interesting monetization models starting to be wrapped around online video - Joost programming may never rise to the level of pre-eminence that its backers would hope for in time to make a real impact in online video markets. It's far more important for video producers to embrace distribution models that allow content to flow into the contexts that audiences value most - those defined by themselves and their peers in whatever venue they desire.