How to watch Wimbledon without a TV

In a secret location, international entrepreneur Richard Li is plotting to change our viewing habits for life.
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The Independent Online

An ambitious $500m (£317m) plan to fuse television and the internet is taking form in an anonymous west London business park where construction is going ahead at a breakneck pace to house the English language studios for Now.com.

Now, or Network of the World, is a multi-channel information and entertainment portal being developed by Richard Li's Pacific Century Cyberworks (PCCW).

Founded last August, PCCW is the technology flagship of Pacific Century Group, the company Mr Li founded with the $950m profit made from the sale of Star TV, the Asian satellite broadcaster, to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in 1995. Since last summer, PCCW has grown rapidly to become Asia's third biggest internet company and the biggest outside Japan. Mr Li's vision is to make the company the world's largest broadband internet provider.

To that end, he has assembled some formidable backers. An early backer of Mr Li was chip giant Intel, which currently holds an 8 per cent stake in PCCW. The group also has swapped $350m cross holdings with CMGI, the biggest US internet incubator, and set up a joint venture to transfer top ranked internet brands into Asia.

Mr Li could shortly have a staggering announcement to make. For he is in the final stages of negotiating to win the rights for Wimbledon on the Net for several years to come - a flagship offering of live Net television. So, for example, the viewer will dart from normal television coverage to the web-cam based Now coverage with a menu that ranges from "inside the locker room" to profiles of key players.

When televisions include Net access and the viewer needn't have a PC and TV, then Now could become even more of a player. With Japanese and Chinese language studios in Tokyo and Hong Kong, Now will begin broadcasting over the Net and the Asiasat satellite network later this month.

As the building site swarms with workers you wouldn't guess that Now.com has been years in gestation. Nor might you realise that Mr Li, a 32-year-old computer science graduate from Silicon Valley's Stanford University, is more famous for being the son of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing than for being an internet visionary.

"Now.com is about creating a singular environment, about taking down walls between television and the Web," says Michael Johnson, who is leading the development of Now and is a senior advisor to Mr Li, the chairman of Hong Kong-based PCCW. "It's incremental to everything we've been doing for the past 15 years."

Though Mr Li's lineage meant that PCCW has never been far from the spotlight, the company made headlines in February when it bought Hong Kong Telecom from Cable & Wireless for £20bn. At a stroke, PCCW gained the financial clout to challenge for the lead role in the internet in Asia, and to be a global player. However, unlike Rupert Murdoch, who sees television as the future for internet content distribution, Mr Li is a firm believer in the primacy of the PC. "The PC has moved into the most sanctimonious of commercial positions," says Mr Johnson. "The empowered section of society has bought into the interactivity and the benefits of the PC."

Not since Microsoft and NBC produced $500m four years ago to set up MSNBC as a multi-purpose cable-television and Web channel has so much been invested in creating Web-based content. What's different is that Now aims to use the cheap production costs of digital technology, linked with the Web's ubiquitous network, to produce a different way of telling stories to what Mr Li and Mr Johnson believe is an emerging global audience.

Just as the language of film developed during the first half of the 20th century, Mr Johnson believes the Web, in its interactivity and connection to the physical universe, will transform the way stories are told in the new century. Now's initial channels will target subjects like sport, weather, lifestyle and fashion, but put the focus on events where, for example, web-cams will give access to content unavailable to traditional television channels. "Clearly this will develop in a myriad of ways, many which can't be predicted," Mr Johnson says. "It's a very different principle from what has been described as narrative television."

Immediacy of content and emotive interaction with the audience are key aims. A trial production generated from Belgrade when it was under siege last year used web-cams and a personalised website to tell the daily story of a family on the ground, struggling to survive Nato's bombardment. If the production standards are a pale imitation of broadcast television, the essential drama of the family's struggle comes through, stronger for being unmediated by TV producers or glossed over by honey-voiced news anchors.

Another trial tells a series of personal stories bound up with the fate of a hurricane sweeping the eastern seaboard of the United States, using both web-cams and hand-size, but high quality, digital cameras. "This is how Richard wants the look and feel to be," says Mr Johnson. "It's a very different principle from what has been described as interactive TV."

Now's key content partnership is with Trans World International (TWI), the sports-rights programming arm of Mark McCormack's International Management Group. It means Now will become the world's biggest digital video/internet provider of sports content with access to TWI's library of 130,000 hours of programming, an archive that adds 10,000 new hours of programmes annually.

The choice of London as a production centre for Now's English-language content marks a simple recognition, Mr Johnson says, of the city being at the cutting edge of film, advertising, design and fashion, the key professions, he believes, to building the network's content: "London was chosen because of its unique creative position in the English-speaking market."

The 100 or so staffers negotiating their way through the construction zone and learning to use the software behind this digital experiment will grow to about 250 by summer. Their average age is 25. Under its partnership with TWI, another 750 people are also working on content for the Now project around the world.

"I can see why the traditional media people are having trouble with this," Mr Johnson says. "It's unlikely that saddle-makers in 1895 were looking to make automobile seats."

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