Economist in dash for fast streaming

The Economist magazine has taken a shortcut to high-speed Internet programming by signing a deal with a video streaming specialist with a private network to distribute its content across the existing narrowband Internet.

Its new partner is Madge.web, which is using the high-profile client to launch its content distribution service. Madge.web already has a robust web hosting and video streaming business with clients like Granada Media PLC and Digital Arts, but it's eager to take on Akamai and Digital Island in the lucrative market for content delivery.

For Madge.web, the Economist is an ideal customer. Last year the 153-year-old publication formed a division called EVision to extend its brand into television. It formed a partnership with independent television producer Mentorn Barrackough Carey and began syndicating five- and six-minute shows to 12 airlines for in-flight entertainment.

The goal is to have Economist-branded video on television, cable, satellite services and broadband. In December, the Economist launched economist.tv as a showcase for its broadband programming. But to make it work on the Web, the Economist knows it must improve on the dreadful quality of streaming Internet video. Madge.web claims that by bypassing Internet bottlenecks its private network can increase the speed of web page delivery by 75 percent.

"We are looking for high quality distribution platforms to match the quality of our production," says EVision director Tony Wales.

The Madge.web deal is the latest step for the Economist, which began its interactive strategy in 1995 with the launch of economist.com. Initially, the newsroom struggled to adapt to the Web, and the site still appears to under-perform considering the nature of the Economist brand. Though it gets about a million unique visitors a month, that's just slightly more than the Economist's paid circulation of 750,000 and a fraction of its claimed readership of 3 million. By contrast, the New York Times has a print circulation of 1.1 million, but 6.3 million monthly readers on the Web.

As with the Web site, integrating television into the Economist's editorial process has caused some stress. A dedicated television editor now attends weekly story meetings and helps Economist writers reduce their news and analysis pieces into television-friendly sound bites. Currently, EVision takes a month to produce a half-hour of programming, but plans to reduce that time to a week.

Wales believes that high quality video from the Economist will be a hot property on the Web and fetch high syndication fees. EVision won't sell traditional TV ads, but will agree sponsorships deals, such as the current arrangement with Concert, the joint telecommunications venture between BT and ATT.

Next year, EVision plans to syndicate half-hour shows to the Public Broadcasting Service in the US. They are also in trials with various broadband services.

The only danger that lies ahead is the added workload for Economist journalists and the feeling among some there that television dilutes the famed Economist product.

"We've got to make sure the editorial process of the magazine, the dot-com and TV don't collide," Wales says. "That is a challenge."

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