Will You Pay $1,000 to Watch a TED Webcast?

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Paying for a live video stream is hardly new — take wrestling, adult content, even courtroom proceedings — but I highly doubt anyone has ever coughed up $1,000 for a webcast.

Until now. The world-famous TED Conference announced Friday it will offer remote access to this year’s festivities, to be held in Long Beach in February. For $995, “associate members” get access to a live webcast. Membership also includes a year’s worth of shipments of TED’s recommended books and music, full DVDs of the conference, as well as other benefits.

TED, which counts intimacy and exclusivity among its strengths, has paradoxically had great success expanding its event by posting videos of its short talks by luminaries from technology, science, arts and politics, often with a humanitarian bent. To date, the talks have been viewed more than 80 million times. TED Community Director Tom Rielly made sure to emphasize in a phone call today that the videos of the conference will continue to be freely available.

“It would be incorrect to characterize it as we’re asking people to pay $1,000 for a webcast alone,” said Rielly. “It’s an alternative to $6,000 membership; it’s not an alternative to the free talks.”

So maybe the initial sticker shock was unwarranted. Still, TED is ultimately about its content — bringing to light people who are famous within their own fields and have broader lessons to share. (Incidentally, the 2009 line-up was announced today.) The point of paying $1000 is to join a club of people who get access to that experience together, before anyone else. Books and DVDs are great, but not THAT great.

As for the free on-demand talks, TED posts one session each weekday immediately following the conference after being re-edited for the small screen, and the majority of the event is online within six months, Rielly said. Though often visually boring — they’re lectures, after all — the talks are highly captivating (see some picks from Liz Shannon Miller here). Streaming is subsidized, in part, by sponsors such as BMW.

TED has been quietly experimenting with live streaming for the last two years, said Rielly. It provided a feed of the event to members who were unable to attend due to childbirth, for example, and allowed a friend of the conference to host a remote viewing of the event in Lima, Peru. Last year, the conference also started putting on a “simulcast” event, where people gather in person to watch the event remotely. It still costs $3,750. TED also put on something called Pangea Day in May in which a set of films were streamed simultaneously around the world (see our coverage). “Several hundred thousand” people participated, according to Rielly.

TED was impressed enough with the vendor for Pangea Day, Los Angeles-based Incited Media, that it is reusing it for the webcast. There will be 1.5 Mbps, 800 Kbps, and 300 Kbps streams, all in Flash.

Rielly said registrations for the new $1,000 option have been steadily streaming in since Friday, and that TED would be pleased if it can attract 1,500 associate members, equaling the number that will be viewing the show from the simulcast in Palm Springs, Calif., this year.

Disclosure: After many years of begging for a press pass, I will finally be attending the Palm Springs simulcast in February.

Updated: In the original version of this post I confused Long Beach with Palm Springs and vice versa.

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