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The Decade in Online Video, Part 1: The Early Years

From the tragedy of 9/11 to the groundbreaking election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States, the first decade of the 21st century had its fair share of memorable moments. However, what really set these years apart from decades before is how these moments and others were being shared digitally. Armed with cell phones, cameras and camcorders, ordinary people all around the world were shooting photos and videos and sharing them online. First on Flickr, then on YouTube.

The years from 2000 to 2009 were in many ways not only the birth of online video as a mass medium, but the end of television as we know it. NewTeeVee has been covering these developments since we launched in December of ’06, and Om kept a close eye on related trends over on GigaOM in the years before. Still, even we tend to forget sometimes that online video existed long before YouTube, Hulu and all the others that came to dominate the space even appeared on the scene.

To commemorate the end of the decade, we decided to take a trip down memory lane. Think of it as the history of online video, condensed down to the major events and trends of the last 10 years. We’re starting our little time line with the beginning of the new millennium in 2000 through 2004 and will conclude it with the other half tomorrow.

2000 was a bad year for startups, and the online video space was no exception. A number of companies had put their bets on moving images on the web in the ’90s, relying on downloadable Quicktime videos and RealMedia streams. Some even raised big bucks during the boom. Problem was, only a few people had broadband, and the rest were stuck watching stamp-size videos that constantly rebuffered.

The technology just wasn’t ready, and when the dot-com bubble eventually burst, so did many web video dreams. The Digital Entertainment Network, which raised $60 million to professionally produce web video content and at one point employed more than 300 people, canceled its IPO in February and eventually shut down in May., the online DVD store, closed down as well, firing all of its 200 employees. Atomfilms merged with, with 100 people losing their jobs., the Michael Ovitz-backed P2P upstart, often hailed as a Napster with movies, was forced to shut down in November as a result of Hollywood’s first lawsuit against a file-sharing network. However, Scour was quickly replaced by Edonkey2000, a file-sharing client launched late in the summer of 2000 that soon became the most popular way to trade video files.

And how’s this for a reality check? RealNetworks (s RNWK) announced — brace yourself — VHS-quality streaming for broadband users and the IOC banned any footage of the 2000 Summer Olympics from the Internet, with the WSJ quoting the IOC’s then-President Juan Antonio Samaranch as saying: “Today, the money is coming from the broadcasters. The money is not coming from the Internet.”

2001 was the year the music industry succeeded in shutting down Napster, but the demise of the MP3-only file-sharing client kick-started video file trading and two developments in 2001 that helped accelerate this process: DivX Networks (s DIVX) released the first version of its OpenDivX codec, which, together with its XviD offshoot, should soon become the standard for Hollywood movies shared through P2P networks. Also, a programmer called Bram Cohen published a P2P client dubbed BitTorrent and seeded a few hundred megabytes of porn to fellow Slashdot readers to get them interested in a large-scale field test.

But there were also signs of an online video industry outside the realm of P2P: CinemaNow, then owned by Lionsgate (s LGF), told CNET that it was delivering 2 million streams per month to more than 500,000 viewers, and the big studios were talking about launching a joint-venture download platform.

2002 was when this joint-venture finally took shape under the moniker Movielink, carrying flicks from five studios as downloadable rentals. However, Movielink quickly got competition in the form of, a new torrent site, which soon would become the biggest and most popular repository for all things free and Hollywood. Still, Jupiter Research was bullish on Movielink & Co., estimating that online VOD would generate $614.9 million per year by 2006.

2002 was also the year when sports leagues discovered online video. The NHL, NBA and MLB began to offer subscriptions and on-demand packages for live webcasts of their games, but sports fans by and large seemed to prefer watching oldteevee. The Chronicle reported back then that only 2,000-3,000 people tuned into MLB’s webcasts.

2003 was a little too early for an ambitious endeavor called The site promised unlimited storage and bandwidth for user-submitted videos to be shared with the world. The site had big plans, but folded quickly, and the domain went up for sale soon after. Maybe Showvox’s problem was that only 7 percent of all Internet users were actually looking at online video in 2003. Or maybe it was the fact the site charged around 20 bucks before users could upload anything.

Bill Gates & Co. opted against subscription videos to make the new medium work. MSN Video (s MSFT) launched in the fall of ’03 with free, ad-supported content from MSNBC and NBC (s GE). Fans of free also got another place to go that year: Swedish anti-copyright activists started The Pirate Bay at the end of ’03 as a Swedish language-only torrent site run on a personal computer in Mexico.

2004 was the year George W. Bush got elected to his second term, and online video started to become increasingly important during the campaign. Both parties produced a number of online-only ads to tap into the growing number of web donors and launch some of their most aggressive attacks. However, the most successful video clip during that election cycle turned out to be the goofy This Land parody, which brought 10.4 million visitors in July of ’04.

Politics aside, 2004 turned out to be a year of change. For the first time ever, more Americans accessed the web via broadband than with a slow-poke analogue modem connection. That prompted the launch of a number of new video ventures, like Blinkx, the online video search engine, the video blog Rocketboom or the now-defunct online subscription service Starz! Ticket that offered consumers access to a catalog of 100 movie titles for $13 per month.

2004 was also the year when a few smart folks from Canada started a photo-sharing site called Flickr. The idea share personal media in public and make it discoverable took off almost immediately, and got propelled into the spotlight when videos of the Tsunami found their way from the web into mainstream media news at the end of ’04. launched in November of ’04, and the coming months would lead to a flurry of site launches in the personal video space.

Click here to read the second part of this article, and feel free to add anything we forgot or tell us about your own most memorable online video moments in the comments.

21 Responses to “The Decade in Online Video, Part 1: The Early Years”

  1. It seems nearly every online video company from 1998-2001 calls themselves “a pioneer”, but to me, a pioneer is a company who actually survives in the market and makes a business out of it. Simply coming up with an idea, launching it and then having to close it down a year later is not “pioneering”.

  2. Ronald M.

    One HUGE miss in this first part of the decade was not mentioning Intertainer who was Movielink’s predecessor (Intertainer sued Movielink) and managed to have way more in the way of content then the other streaming sites that you mention. I would say Intertainer’s library even rivaled today’s hulu. (However, Intertainer was more focused on movies then tv)

    Intertainer btw was also awarded patents in 2005 that enabled it to collect royalties from Apple and others….

  3. I’m all for going down memory lane, but some of this is not accurate. No one was watching “stamp-size video” in 2000. In the year 2000, the average sized video window was 240×180, about 3x the size of a postage stamp. “Stamp-sized video” was back in the 1998 time frame. By 2000, the average 300Kbps clip was doing 15fps and was not stamp sized.

    I realize this post is talking about the last 10 years, but the most technology innovation in the online video space took place in the three years between 1997-2000. We went from 28.8 audio, to 56K video, to VHS-quality, live webcasting, SureStream technology, DRM technology, Microsoft acquiring two companies to get into the business and the first $0.99 music downloads hit the industry using technology from a2b Music (AT&T) and Liquid Audio. More technology innovation was accomplished in those three years than all the years from 2000-2009. Not to mention, the huge acquisitions we saw that dwarf Google/YouTube, like Yahoo! buying

    One of the major things missing from this list, for the time period of 2000-2004 is when ABC News started broadcasting live on the web. That started the entire business of news on the web and led to CNN and everyone else following suit. That was a major shift in the industry.

    It seems nearly every online video company from 1998-2001 calls themselves “a pioneer”, but to me, a pioneer is a company who actually survives in the market and makes a business out of it. Simply coming up with an idea, launching it and then having to close it down a year later is not “pioneering”. Ebaum’s World didn’t have any unique technology, no IP, no business model and nothing that was sustainable.

    The past ten years are not the “end of television as we know it”! I get this is NewTeeVee and it’s all about covering the new forms of video over IP, but TV is not going away and video on the web is not replacing TV distribution today, next year, or anytime soon. To say otherwise is to simply give into all the hype in the industry.

    • Hey Dan,

      I understand your healthy skepticism against proclaiming the end of anything, and many things in the TV space do seem at least on the surface to look very much like they used to ten or twenty years back, especially in the world of the TV networks. However, I do believe that some technological advances over the last ten years have fundamentally changed the way we think about and consume TV.

      Television used to be a linear medium. Today, a significant number of consumers have DVRs at home (can’t find the current number for the U.S. at the moment, but I think I remember it to be around 30% of all households in the U.K.), and Hulu likely clocked over a billion video views in December. That doesn’t mean people don’t watch linear TV at all anymore, but it’s mot the only option, and most people nowadays watch TV on their terms. That’s a huge change to the way TV worked in the Nineties.

      Another significant change is a much lower barrier of access to the tools and distribution channels. Starting your own cable channel is a very expensive commitment that won’t pay off for years. Starting your own show, or even your own network online is much easier, and some folks have been getting audiences that are en par with the ones seen on cable. Again, that doesn’t mean that ABC is toast and that everyone is now producing Lost in their living room, cable TV has never been just about expensive, scriped content …

      There are a few more differences that do make today’s TV a very different medium than TV of the 80ies or 90ies, but that’s probably worth another post.

  4. Two words: Ebaum’s world.

    Ebaum’s world (founded 2001) was, in my mind, the clear forerunner to YouTube. The type of video we consider to be “viral” today was Ebaum’s bread and butter. I was in undergrad from 2000-4 and friends and I would spend hours and hours watching quicktime videos of people being hit in the balls, being attacked by animals, etc, etc, etc. Oi. So stupid. But it’s importance shouldn’t be overlooked.