CNN/YouTube debate may be landmark for Web video

Nine years ago, when thousands of Internet users overwhelmed computer servers as they rushed to download the independent counsel's report about President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, it was an early, if inglorious, marker in the growing pains of the new media.

Fast-forward to the recent CNN/YouTube debate, with Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, which may be seen as a watershed in its own right: marking the coming-of-age of video on the Web.


Just as computing horsepower and broadband capacity have come a long way since 1998, Internet video may eventually be as common as TV. Families may still cluster on the couch eating junk food, only they'll be watching something on the Internet on the flat-panel on their wall because there's nothing compelling on TV that night.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project portrays video use online as much more commonplace than just a few years ago. Three-quarters of people with high-speed connections at home or work responded that they have watched videos online, although people under 30 are much more likely to have posted a video.


"We're reaching an important inflection point where video is starting to compete with text-based communication for our attention," said Mary Madden, a Pew researcher. "There's the side of it where you're sending a link to someone and that's sort of a message in and of itself, almost like gift-giving behavior."

By some measures, the video world is where the audio world was several years ago, when music was largely being shared freely - illegally - on sites like Napster before the recording industry became more aggressive on copyright protection and, more important, created a pay model that people became comfortable with.

Video sharing is still largely a free endeavor. Watching videos online is entertaining, to be sure, but many people at this stage seem more willing to invest time rather than money to do so.

According to the Pew study, 10 percent of respondents ages 18 to 29 said they'd paid to access online video, compared with 7 percent for people 30 to 49 and 3 percent in the 50-64 age range. That was the smallest age gap in a report that otherwise showed cultural chasms when it came to online video habits.

Young people, for example, were nearly three times as likely to have posted a comment about a video they'd seen, compared with middle-aged adults, and also were much more likely to have watched an Internet video with others. Nearly three-quarters of people under 30 said they'd watched an online video as a group - perhaps the new-age version of families clustered about Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside" radio chats.

At this point, Web video seems largely an amusement, a titillation. The online videos that have captured widespread attention (often became they've been publicized by the old media) have largely been nonsensical, like swimsuit models prancing around singing that they have a crush on this or that political candidate.

Even the highlight of the celebrated CNN/YouTube debate was a question by an animated snowman who evoked "Mr. Bill" from the old Saturday Night Live - not quite Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."


Andrew Ratner is Today editor of The Sun and a former technology reporter.