Looking ahead to the future, I think that one of the problems that will be solved is how to ‘program’ web video content. Not in the technical sense, but in the traditional television sense. I still think that one of the things that OldTeeVee is good at that NewTeeVee can learn from is ‘findability’ or ‘discoverability,’ as well as that kick-back-and-relax passivity that’s so comfortably mindless.
But, as a certain Mr. T might say, “I pity the fool who’d try to predict the future.”
What follows is a description of my process of creating a web TV channel, in the hopes that it’ll inspire someone in the direction I’m imagining. If you do not have any precious DIY time, you could take a shortcut and simply start by trying out to my humble attempt at a proof of concept, a feed for your RSS-enabled media player.
I couldn’t begin to keep track of how much great content I’ve stumbled upon just by flipping channels (not surprisingly, StumbleVideo is one of my favorite sites). Still, all the good shows I’ve found online have been through word of mouth from friends who I’m confident share similar tastes. And clicking email links just doesn’t do it for me.
I relish the full-screen experience of VLC, Joost and Babelgum. And what’s more convenient than EZTV‘s feeds combined with Azureus’ RSS plugin? I began wondering how to put something like that together for my favorite web shows.
Now, iTunes is a great tool for subscribing to video blogs and television shows. But it doesn’t provide an easy way to share your choices with the public. YouTube and other sites have cool features for creating your own channel of favorite content to share with friends, but like iTunes, you’re limited to content within their network. I spend an inordinate amount of my day with my RSS feed reader, but that still doesn’t the offer the kind of seamless, full-screen experience couch potatoes like me have come to expect. Once I read the P2P Foundation blog’s RSS TV = Indie IPTV I made the decision to try and find a solution.
Liz suggested that I spend some time playing with the Democracy Player — a free, open source application that uses the VLC player to play back content in a scad of formats, and supports RSS ‘channels,’ or video content delivered via feeds with media enclosures. It also seamlessly plays back a number of episodes in order, and has a full-screen mode. What it doesn’t offer is the ability to share a folder of subscriptions, or import and export OPML files with a group of feeds.
Where to turn? RSS feed aggregators! My idea was to take a bunch of RSS feeds from different shows, combine them into one giant franken-feed and plug that into the Democracy Player. After trying, and failing, with FeedJumbler, RSS Mix and FeedBlendr, I emailed Feed Digest and got an account I could use to test. Turns out that the FeedBlendr Beta also supports this, and both FeedBlendr and Feed Digest promise full support for media enclosures in future versions.
What happens is that feeds without enclosures make the Democracy Player freak out. This also means that just pulling any old RSS feed from your favorite vlog won’t necessarily work. It’s much better to use the feeds provided by the video sharing host. For instance, Geek Entertainment TV is hosted on Blip.tv. Go to the Blip.tv show page, click the ‘Subscribe’ tag, and then right-click the little ‘RSS’ button at the bottom and choose ‘Copy link as…’ or ‘Copy shortcut as…’ — this will put the URL you need in your clipboard.
Once you’ve pasted a few feed links into a text document, it’s time to assemble them into your channel. For FeedDigest, you start a new digest with one feed, and then add more feeds (up to five for a free account, and twenty for a basic account that costs $11.99). It’s as simple as clicking ‘Click here to add a feed to this digest’ and then entering a feed URL from your clipboard in the form field.
Once you’ve collected a few feeds into you digest, you can play with the settings for the feed. These include the feed name, the feed URL, the number of items to display for each feed in the digest and the order you want them published (ascending is oldest-first and descending is latest-first). You can even enter a query to only include items that contain a phrase you want to match, such as an element of the show description or title. Click ‘Save Changes’ at the bottom of the page when you’re done.
Now that you’ve assembled a digest, you can export the feed in a number of ways. First, you should probably use the simple HTML template to test your feed to make sure all the shows are coming through. You don’t want to see text posts, and the links should go straight to the media. You can also export this list of feeds as an OPML file to test in a regular RSS feed reader like Bloglines or Google Reader to double-check that you’ve only assembled basic media enclosure posts.
Switch over to the Democracy Player and click ‘Channel > Add Channel’ or press Ctrl+N (Command+N). When the dialog box pops up, paste in the URL to your digest feed.
If Democracy Player throws an error message at you, then you probably have a feed in your digest that doesn’t have enclosure tags. To check, enter the URL to each feed in your browser location bar and scan the XML code for <enclosure>…</enclosure> — if you don’t see it, you’ll need to find a better feed for that show. Otherwise, your new channel should appear in the Democracy Player on the right, and the content will be available episodes from all the feeds in your digest, which should download automagically.
Et voila! You’re well on your way to becoming a network programming executive. To save you the trouble, I put together an example digest, “The NewTeeVee Channel” with a selection of just a few of our favorites. I also tried, unsuccessfully, to use the TV Tonic viewer. If you’re careful about only adding iTunes-compliant feeds to your digest, you could presumably even use iTunes to subscribe to your franken-feed. Though that begins to raise some ethical questions about creator rights. (God forbid someone mixes a feed of ads into a channel. Keep it non-commercial, kids!)
This is, admittedly, the very definition of janky. I’m sure that someone with l33t sk11z could come up with something much more elegant (and if you do, please let me know). What’s important is that I had a friend over and we watched for hours, with shows mixed in randomly chronological enough to keep everything fresh and compelling (Invisible Engine’s new short Burger Kung just killed).
More importantly, I was getting a bit shy when my friends asked, “Have you seen our latest?” Now I can keep up with all the shows I’m supposed to be watching, replacing hours I used to spend watching the boob tube. Excuse me while I lean back, rest my feet on a coffee table and catch up on my stories.