When Newspapers Meet TV on the Web, Be Prepared

By: Steve Outing

WebTV is getting a lot of attention these days, as the first viable option for viewing the World Wide Web via a television set instead of a personal computer. If it succeeds -- and Internet industry observers seems split of its prospects -- WebTV will soon have a direct impact on Web site publishers, who are faced with redesigning their sites to work for a TV-viewing audience.

WebTV Networks Inc. of Palo Alto, California, was the first company out of the chute with a TV-capable Internet solution. It markets a set-top box and Internet access service that delivers the Internet through television. WebTV's technology has been licensed for the Sony Internet Terminal and the Phillips/Magnavox Internet TV Terminal, which recently became available in U.S. consumer electronics stores for a few hundred dollars. Monthly Internet access (which must be through WebTV's access partners) is $19.95 for unlimited usage.

While I don't expect experienced Internet users to switch to WebTV, I do give this product a good chance of making it big. WebTV executives cite a recent study they commissioned by Yankovich Partners which asked non-Internet users in the U.S. whether they would prefer to surf the Web on a television or a PC. The TV won 52% to 31%. It's this big market -- still a large majority of the population -- of current non-Internet users that WebTV is likely to attract. PCs are a forbidding oddity to many consumers, still, while the Internet melded onto a TV set looks more friendly.

In the coming couple of years, I'm fairly certain that WebTV and its competitors will earn a sizable chunk of the home Internet marketplace -- and bring lots of new users to the Internet.

Get your sites ready -- now?

Now is the time, then, to prepare for the Web on TV and to think about redesigning or tweaking your site to accommodate WebTV users. Today's typical Web site, which was designed for consumer viewing on a small PC screen at close range, could look bad -- and possibly downright unreadable -- on a television screen viewed from 8 or 10 feet away. Some sort of redesign is going to be necessary for some -- maybe most -- sites.

Do you need to do it now? That's debatable, and many Web publishers are watching WebTV to see if it takes off. Bill Skeet, chief designer of Knight-Ridder's New Media Center, who's responsible for the look of many of the newspaper chain's Web sites, says he's watching WebTV closely and will react only if it appears to be reaching critical mass. (WebTV isn't yet giving out information on number of units sold.) Skeet thinks that this Christmas season will tell whether WebTV will put enough units into American homes for Knight-Ridder to consider redesigning its sites. "Ask me again in three weeks," he says.

Skeet's boss, Knight-Ridder vice president of new media Robert Ingle, has a WebTV unit and thinks that most of his papers' sites will need some redesign work when WebTV users become a significant force. Skeet says that's not a decision that Knight-Ridder will take lightly. "It's a bummer" to have to run, in effect, two Web sites simultaneously with limited resources, he says. "Still, if you're going to be a player (on the Web) you have to anticipate this stuff."

Design considerations

When (and if) the time comes to design a site to be compatible with WebTV, you'll face some tough choices. While you might be able to come up with an acceptable design that looks good and is readable by both PC and WebTV viewers, it's unlikely to be the optimal solution for either group of users. My advice is to create a secondary set of pages that are optimized for WebTV visitors.

(Some sites already have a "lite" version, to accommodate users of America Online's Web browser and those with slow Internet connections. Others have in the past optimized their sites to work with advanced features of Netscape's browser or Microsoft's Explorer. So this is nothing new -- just more work in accommodating a new set of users. Sophisticated sites that serve up dynamically produced pages will have an easier time serving up different pages to different browser users than will sites that rely on static Web pages.)

I should note that WebTV executives don't agree with the advice above. WebTV evangelist John Lee says most sites look just fine on WebTV, and require only minor tweaking to optimize the Internet TV experience. WebTV has a succinct style guide on its site that offers up suggestions to Web site publishers. There "are no hard and fast rules" for designing sites for WebTV, he says. "This is still the Internet." He thinks a single site design can work on both PC and TV screens. I have my doubts, and believe that you must take into account the different audience that WebTV users comprise -- and design for them.

Consider your home page first. This main entry point is going to be visited by both camps, so the best advice is to keep the page simple, with few elements, and make sure it looks good on both PC and TV screens. You'll want to offer a link to the WebTV version of your site on the opening screen. (The TV-optimized page is likely to be what your WebTV viewers will bookmark.)

For your WebTV-optimized pages, here are a few design pointers as recommended by WebTV:

* Check how your pages look on a TV screen. If you don't have WebTV access at your office, increase the default text size on your browser to 18 points and narrow your screen slightly. And stand back from your PC screen to get an idea of how your pages will be viewed on a TV set.
* Limit your page size to 544 by 378 pixels. The width is very important, because WebTV scrolls vertically but not horizontally.
* Avoid using full white or full red, because they will cause screen distortion on a TV set. Dark backgrounds with lighter colored text tend to work well. For example, a medium yellow/gold or light blue on black background is easily readable on a TV set.
* Avoid small text sizes both in HTML coding and in images. Small type in an image may be unreadable on TV.
* Don't user server-side image-maps, since they currently don't work well with WebTV. Client-side image-maps are acceptable.
* Try to reduce the number of items on a page, and create a central focus; TV viewers are used to looking at one focal point.
* Pages should contain as few elements as possible, because too many pieces can quickly overwhelm non-computer users. If you have a busy page, when redesigning for WebTV, consider moving some elements to other pages.
* Don't use single-pixel horizontal rules, because they will flicker on a TV screen.
* Use background music or theme music on your site to provide an experience more like television, WebTV suggests. The next version of WebTV, to be released in the coming weeks, will have support for audio.
* The present release does not support frames, but that will change within the next week. In time, company representatives say that WebTV will also support other advanced multimedia tools on the Web that the current version does not support. Early users of WebTV will not see a site's advanced features such as Shockwave animations and Java applets.

Skeet suggests looking to Web sites produced by broadcasters -- CNN, MSNBC, ESPN, etc. -- for tips on producing Web pages suited for the television screen. This is an area where broadcast designers may have an edge over newspaper Web designers, he says.

You don't have to do anything to your site in order for WebTV users to view it, of course. As WebTV's Lee says, most sites look OK on a TV screen as is. But remember that WebTV is bringing a whole new audience to the Internet: novice users who are used to TV, not computers. It only makes sense to cater your site to this new and different group of people. ... That is, if WebTV truly becomes the mass market Internet vehicle that it promises to be.

Contact: John Lee, WebTV, evangelist@corp.webtv.net

More on caching

Jack Lail of the Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel suggests another solution to the problem of America Online's proxy servers caching pages from Web sites. Responding to a recent column about the caching issue, he writes:

"While sidestepping the copyright issues and ad issues, which I found very interesting, we had problems with certain of our pages that we update daily with AOL users always saying they were not current. We solved the problem with expiration dates of not an hour or a day, but set to two years ago for an instant expiration." As I noted in my original column on the subject of caching, that solves the updating problem handily, but slows down the user experience of a site because not only will AOL's proxy servers not cache the past-expired pages, in many instances neither will the user's Web browser. When a user might normally go back to a previously visited page and have it pulled from the browser's local cache, the expiration tag will require a new page be pulled over the Internet to the user, slowing down the user's experience. In the world of server caching, there's no ideal solution for afflicted publishers.

Contact: Jack Lail, lail@knoxnews.com


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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