In a world where the transmission of moving pictures from one PC to another is not only frustratingly slow but poor in quality, broadband is seen by many as the Holy Grail.
Broadband - the generic term used for the delivery of pictures on demand via a PC or television - makes many things possible. With increased bandwidth, viewers will be able to watch business TV from their workplace PCs and companies will be able to broadcast their own TV channels directly to customers or employees.
As the broadband revolution gathers pace, an influx of new TV channels is widely anticipated. The impact on the marketplace will make the fragmentation which occurred in the late 1980s seem like small beer.
Viewers will be creating their own schedules based on their interests through the use of electronic programme guides (EPGs). Bespoke TV channels created by big brands could very well end up on their viewing schedules.
As far as the internet is concerned, many believe a two-tier web-searching facility known as web-spidering will become commonplace, serving both broadband and regular sites. Web-spidering will direct users to the dynamic content on broadband sites or static content on regular sites.
From a business perspective, the benefits of owning your own TV channel are appealing - for the first time an organisation could control both its product messages and corporate image in a broadcast environment. Brands as Broadcasters director Steve Marinker calls this process 'brandcasting'.
'It's all about finding the opportunity to create streams of content. Rather than relying on placing advertisements to reach an audience, an organisation could control the medium.'
Brands as Broadcasters, which was set up last year by Ardi Kolah, aims to help brands create their own TV channels. In practice this means that a company known for baby food products could launch its own parentcraft channel. Breakfast cereal manufacturers could launch health and fitness channels, pet product suppliers could launch pet lovers' channels, and so on.
'This isn't something new,' says Marinker, 'since contract publishing has been creating an affinity with target audiences for years. And in some ways, launching your own channel is similar to launching a website, except that websites are slow and clunky and limited in what they can do.'
At Citigate Dewe Rogerson, the broadcast team is working with a number of undisclosed blue-chip clients on broadband programming projects. Head of broadcast Richard Pemberton says: 'We didn't exist 18 months ago and now we have 16 staff, due largely to unique programming for corporate brands. Increasingly we are being asked to provide webcasting and we are discussing the possibility of setting up TV channels with several clients.'
Bespoke TV channels
The logistics of running a bespoke TV channel may put off many potential clients. But a bespoke TV channel does not need to run 24-hours a day.
Video footage can be linked to e-commerce sites with viewers hitting the channel on demand. The real stumbling block is the target audience, as viewers must have either digital TV or a high speed internet connection to access bespoke channels.
But even if the entire population had access to wider bandwidth, not everyone is convinced that brandcasting is the way ahead.
Tessa Curtis, Weber Shandwick chief executive of broadcast, says a number of themed channels already exist which pre-date broadband, and not all are a success.
'The technology may exist to make it possible, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work,' says Curtis. 'TV is as cluttered as the internet. The challenge would be to make a channel stand out. Unless the content is compelling or different then I question whether this is going to be the best way to communicate with target audiences.'
Certainly a stream of content about the benefits of a particular product would make for very dull viewing. But three broadband channels from high street heavyweights Sainsbury's, Prudential and Boots are aimed much higher.
Sainsbury's has teamed up with Carlton Communications to offer a joint media food and drink company called Taste Network. Due to launch this spring, Taste Network will become Britain's first interactive TV and internet food and drink channel. Viewers will be able to watch their favourite cooking shows, download the latest recipes, check out new restaurants and order food and drink over the TV or internet.
According to Sainsbury's, the UK online grocery market will be worth around pounds 7.5bn by 2005. The new venture is an attempt to capture an early stake in this market.
'The Taste website and, in the future, interactive digital TV shopping, will link to the Sainsbury's home shopping service so it will benefit from increased internet traffic,' says Greg Dawson, Taste Network head of press and PR.
Dawson says Taste is about making food and drink an important part of everyday life and entertainment. 'It isn't about promoting Sainsbury's the brand,' he clarifies. 'Taste is an independent business with independent editorial teams and content. TV is strictly governed by the ITC and does not allow channels to promote just one brand.'
Nevertheless, who could argue that Taste won't enhance Sainsbury's reputation, albeit indirectly? The message to customers is clear - as a brand, Sainsbury's can be trusted to bring up-to-date food news and impartial reviews.
'The important thing is that these companies are investing in streams of content,' offers Marinker. 'How exactly they will lever this to benefit the brand is up to each individual company.'
In October last year, Prudential launched its financial products and services on Telewest's Active digital service. The interactive digital service takes the form of a consumer e-magazine, allowing subscribers to access insurance quotes during advertisement breaks. The service was extended to other digital subscribers in December when Prudential joined forces with Kingston Interactive Television (KIT), a leading ADSL-based interactive TV service.
'Customers can now find out about our products and services via their computer, WAP phone, telephone, TV or arrange a visit with one of our financial advisors,' says Jaz Saggu, Prudential head of e-commerce.
The service provided is principally an e-magazine, but there are plans to expand the remit to offer a more TV channel-like experience, with editorial content developed according to each target audience.
Boots is also catching onto the power of broadband, and will launch an independent internet and broadcast company with Granada Media in February, including an interactive digital TV channel and website covering health and beauty. Customers will be able to secure delivery of information, products and services through their TV or PC, and as technology develops, through their mobile or palmtop devices.
Boots chief executive Steve Russell says: 'It is an example of how we can create value by capitalising on the enormous power of the Boots brand.'
Broadband may also prove useful to the UK's football clubs. From next season, clubs will be entitled to rebroadcast their own matches 48 hours after they have appeared on TV. Patrick Harverson, Manchester United communications director, says the club's TV channel MUTV will benefit most from the agreement on referred rights, but broadband may be considered as a means to deliver high quality TV footage via the club's website.
The PR role
So what role can PR people play in the age of broadband? Pemberton and Marinker believe PR agencies are ideally placed to help guide clients through the whole process of launching a TV channel.
'There is no reason why PR can't take a lead strategic role,' says Marinker, who has worked in the PR industry for 13 years, latterly at Countrywide Porter Novelli.
'Brandcasting is natural for PR since it is an editorial experience and sits at the heart of the PR skill set. Agencies can act as ringmaster, helping companies through legal and copyright issues, deciding whether to originate or acquire editorial content and ensuring it is a cohesive and 'sticky' experience.'
Marinker adds that PR can also bring measurement and evaluation to the table.
However, many remain sceptical about the role of PR in this broadcast evolution. Dick Lumsden, BSMG director of publishing, says: 'I don't think there is a natural synergy between PR and broadband - at least not one that I can see right now.
'It may well become the medium of choice for marketing - the concept of one channel showing nothing but ads and product related programming might well appeal to some big brand names. But PR is more subtle, and I cannot think of too many occasions when an audience would voluntarily switch on to a channel of non-stop PR,' he adds.
Lumsden adds: 'I think PR people would find it very difficult to persuade clients to part with the kind of money necessary for the production and distribution costs of an untried and untested medium.'
And while Curtis thinks broadband will offer the PR industry many opportunities, she does not believe it will be in the arena of creating bespoke TV channels for clients.
'Broadband is far more exciting than just running a TV channel; it will make interactive and multimedia a reality for the first time,' she says.
'At present we are restricted by technical capabilities - broadband will open the floodgates. Corporate communication is limited by the internet - certainly carrying video files is difficult at present, it clogs up the system. Broadband will facilitate the sending and playing of videos, making interactivity a real possibility for the first time,' Curtis adds.
Clearly the jury is still out on broadband. No one knows for sure how the technology will impact on the PR industry or whether or not iPR should be leading the way in the creation of bespoke TV channels. But most in the industry are agreed that brandcasting would not replace traditional advertising and PR, but would work alongside it as an additional communications tool.
However if Pemberton is correct, broadband's killer application will be mobile technology and this will force the industry to sit up and take notice. 'When the technology becomes available with 3G, the internet and broadband will come together. Mobile technology will allow viewers to watch niche TV on the move.'
There is obviously plenty of opportunity for brands to use broadband, whether this means using their websites in a more exciting way, or going all the way and producing their own TV channel. The technology is advancing quickly: whether brands are prepared to take a chance and move fast enough to catch up is another matter.
Is broadband the next Holy Grail? Maybe not, but if companies don't consider it as a means of getting even closer to their consumers, they may be missing a trick. Or even a hat trick, if Manchester United gets involved.
PETS PYJAMAS A 'UNIQUE' EXPERIENCE ONLINE
It is early days as far as creating bespoke broadband TV channels is concerned, but broadcast company Brands as Broadcasters is working on a number of feasibility studies for clients.
One client is pet goods catalogue and internet company Pets Pyjamas, which approached Brands as Broadcasters with the challenge of making its website stand out.
Brands as Broadcasters director Steve Marinker says: 'There are a number of competing sites out there. They all contain text and graphics, plus an e-commerce option. The challenge is how to make logging onto Pets Pyjamas a unique experience.'
Brands as Broadcasters created a mock-up to show how the Pets Pyjamas website could be transformed using ADSL technology. This new dynamic element would make logging on more like tuning into a favourite TV channel.
Through a mixture of entertainment, information and e-commerce, it is hoped that viewers would keep returning to the site. Competitions, games and bonus point schemes could also be used to increase customer loyalty.
Programmes used on the mock-up are of a high standard and include a show about the experiences of a young woman vet in Africa and the fishing adventures of Australian legend Rex Hunt. Research shows that pet care programmes with TV vets are also popular with viewers.
As part of the management of the TV channel, a record of what each viewer has watched would be kept, as well as details of his or her viewing tastes.
And because the Pets Pyjamas channel would be on demand, the viewer would decide when he would prefer to watch a particular show.
BROADBAND AND HOW TO GET IT
Broadband means increased bandwidth, so it allows pictures to be delivered on demand to PCs and TV. In the future, pictures will be delivered to mobile devices, such as telephones and palm pilots.
At present there are three platforms which can deliver broadband - ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) to computers, ADSL to TV, and cable and satellite platforms.
ADSL to PCs enables viewers to watch pictures on their monitors if they have a high-speed internet connection.
On the plus side the quality is infinitely better than the wobbly webcast most viewers are used to. This is because with ADSL, data is received at 512kb per second, as opposed to the regular delivery speed of 56kb per second.
At the moment, though, pictures can only be displayed in one quarter of the monitor, making the viewing window small. Leading players in the ADSL to PC field include BTopenworld and Freeserve Plus.
With ADSL to TV, data is pumped through copper phone wires to a set-top box at a speed of 2.5mb per second. The speed and quality make TV on demand a reality.
The main downside is that ADSL to TV is not available nationwide, though this situation will be remedied as BT updates its exchanges up and down the country. Companies involved in this area include Kingston Interactive Television and Homechoice.
As far as cable is concerned, NTL and Telewest are the two main leaders.
Satellite companies involved in broadband include EnfoCast, which delivers news channels such as BBC, Bloomberg and CNN to PCs. The organisation also allows subscribers the option of creating their own bespoke TV channels.