Big Brother's biggest winner

Craig may have won the game, but RealNetworks scored a major victory in the streaming media war.
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Farewell, then, Mel's bum, Darren's chickens, Craig's biceps and Caggie's lipstick. Now that the summer of Big Brother has come to an end, you might think that the legacy of the Channel 4 show will fade as quickly as the media saturation. You'd be wrong.

Farewell, then, Mel's bum, Darren's chickens, Craig's biceps and Caggie's lipstick. Now that the summer of Big Brother has come to an end, you might think that the legacy of the Channel 4 show will fade as quickly as the media saturation. You'd be wrong.

The biggest success of the voyeuristic game show is not its ratings, or its ability to make stars of life's no-hopers. It's likely to be remembered more for a spectacle that happened far away from the unflinching, pervasive eye of the cameras - the humbling of Bill Gates with one of the most severe commercial blows to Microsoft in the company's history. The repercussions could shape the way we view internet broadcasts for years to come.

The true Big Brother winner was RealNetworks, the company that provided the RealPlayer software used by the show's fans to try to get those must-see shower shots, as well as the more mundane views of the contestants day and night over the Web. And it was indeed a remarkable success. More than half a million people downloaded the software specifically to enjoy the Big Brother experience.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is staring at an embarrassing decline for its rival software, Media Player, which had a recent fanfare launch for its Version 7. A survey by Nielsen/Net Ratings showed it lost more than 160,000 users in the month before Big Brother aired in the UK and US, and it is believed many more have followed suit since.

"A lot of people have recognised Big Brother is a good way to get a foothold in their market," says Chris Short, content manager for Big Brother Online. "We went with Real primarily on the strength of Real. They did a good presentation. We toyed with the idea of encoding for Microsoft as well, but that would have meant doubling up all the hardware at the house."

RealNetworks showed a great deal of foresight in getting involved with Big Brother at an early stage. The company signed up for the Holland and Germany Big Brothers as well as the UK, and is a partner with AOL in the US. Microsoft, meanwhile, was locked out in the cold, watching its main rival scoop up consumers. RealNetworks is now on its way to becoming the only significant player for video streaming internet broadcasts with a staggering 85 per cent of the global market.

Before Big Brother, Microsoft was hoping to win the next big prize in the internet revolution, dominance of the live broadcast software market, as it had won so many other battles. As usual, the state of the market appeared to stack the odds in the giant's favour: it had an all-conquering brand and its Media Player was there at the heart of its Windows operating system.

The battle lines were drawn earlier this summer when RealNetworks signed a deal with AOL to gain access to its 23 million subscribers across the globe, with RealPlayer distributed as part of AOL's Netscape browser. Microsoft, meanwhile, also added some high-profile supporters to its streaming media technology. Yahoo has recently rolled out its own media player based on Microsoft's technology.

However, RealNetworks' advantage hasn't just come from the high number of Big Brother downloads. The RealPlayer brand has gained extraordinary public exposure with its logo appearing all over the Big Brother website.

"We were getting three to four million page impressions a day, with massive spikes around the TV programmes, at lunchtime when people were visiting at work, and when they came home," Chris Short says. "It caused a few headaches getting the bandwidth at peak loads.

"It was even worse on a Friday. The first show [of the evening] is designed to leave everyone on a cliff edge, so instead of sitting around waiting for the second show, they all go on-line. It proves the premise of a co-broadcaster certainly works."

There may be other startling repercussions from this year's most influential TV show. Many European internet players are keen to break the dominance of US companies on the Web. Big Brother is made by Bazal, which is owned by Dutch TV giant GMG Endemol. That company is in turn owned by Spanish communications company Telefonica, which runs Terra, the ground-busting internet partner for Big Brother. The success of Big Brother means Terra has now outshone US rivals to become the leading name for live internet broadcasts.

The extent of the Big Brother achievement should not be under-rated. Not only did it prove video streaming could reach a massive market, it was also a technologically smooth ride. Most of the people who signed up for the Big Brother RealPlayers were novices to the Net, yet the first job they had to do was download and install an intricate piece of software, something that even baffles experts from time to time. All the partners involved made the process easy for the novice, which has now started people talking excitedly about the prospects for video streaming.

George Fraser, RealNetworks' general manager and director for Northern Europe, says: "Not so long ago I was talking to Channel 4 and they said they'd only be interested in video streaming once it reached broadcast reliability - in the same way that you click on Channel 4 on your TV and its always there. We achieved 100 per cent availability for the video streaming with Big Brother. Broadcasters now have to accept this is the future."

RealNetworks is now looking to hold on to all the users who came on board during Big Brother, and to build on that success by talking to broadcasters and other "content owners". There's already talk of 1,000 channels, broadcast continually over the Web.

And while the business repercussions of Big Brother rumble on, don't think you can hide from that all-seeing eye. Back at Big Brother Online, Chris Short is also preparing for the future. "We're now discussing how to go on with the website until the next series next year. We've built up this massive community and it would be madness to let it wander off. We want to devise a format for the site to capitalise on that and drive people forward into Big Brother 2."

You have been warned.