Kings of the web TV jungle

In the US, online TV is getting more sophisticated. Yet UK stations offer little more than porn. Ian Burrell meets two men who hope to change that
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The Independent Online

Playing the part of Mufasa, the lord of the jungle in the West End musical The Lion King, is not an obvious career move for a would-be media mogul. But the actor Ray Shell has chosen this route and plans to be a key player in the television industry of tomorrow.

With his partner Alex Gater, Shell has set up DTZ TV, Britain's first internet-based television channel. The station is still in its infancy and broadcasts its programmes - mainly short films, music reviews and interviews - from the front room of Gater's house in Bow, east London.

Despite its humble beginnings, Shell is convinced that DTZ TV is the first stage of a revolution in television. "It is the global aspect that excites me," he says. "Broadband is the future. If it's a world-wide thing, it will allow us to access other cultures so much more quickly." Interest is already growing in the "station" and the pair have discussed its future with with two mainstream broadcasters.

DTZ TV's music output is eclectic. It currently runs a review show called Car Tunes, presented from the front seat of a car. Another, Diva to Diva, will be fronted by former Soul II Soul vocalist Victoria Wilson-James, while Jamiroquai singer Jason Kay and the band Alabama 3 have also contributed pieces.

The idea of internet television is growing in America, where web-sites specialising in comedy, sports and fashion offer a variety of clips from shows on cable television. Film companies in America have begun to trail movies on the internet to entice people to the cinemas, but by contrast British video sites are largely devoted to pornography and home movies.

Gater admits that online audiences currently do not have an appetite for half-hour shows, and so attempts to keep his films between four and 10 minutes. "As the technology improves, people will be prepared to sit and watch longer films on their computers," he says. The channel currently has the feel of an online video magazine, with an archive of three and a half hours of clips and short films.

Shell is an interesting character. He grew up in New York, and his father is a Pentecostal minister who taught him to sing so well that he is now employed by Jamiroquai as their voice coach.

He won critical praise for his 1993 novel Iced, which was based largely in the crack-houses of New York and is a powerful story about the sufferings of a cocaine addict. Shell has spent most of his professional life on stage, appearing in a succession of West End musicals including Miss Saigon, Five Guys Named Moe and Starlight Express.

The DTZ TV story began almost five years ago in Gibraltar, where Gater bought himself a video camera while on holiday. When he got home he was struck by the potential of his new toy and set up a prototype website. "I realised that the whole thing with having this camera and the technology of the internet was that I could film, edit and broadcast to a global audience from my own front room," he says. "It was a case of getting in there early while the medium was still young and people were not trying anything apart from putting their home movies up."

Things began to take off last year after Gater met Shell and gained access to the actor's extensive contacts book. A film the pair made of last year's Screen Nation awards in Leicester Square includes interviews with almost all of Britain's best-known black film and television stars, including, Colin Salmon who has appeared in three James Bond films.

Having built an archive of short programmes, the pair hope to develop something closer to a television schedule that will draw people in on a regular basis. Their intention is to produce a breakfast show or some live programming in an attempt to attract viewers.

"Interactive television is not just about pressing a red button to watch a footballer," says Gater. "That's just remote control. For me interactive television is when you log on with your web camera and actually take part in the show."

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