Earthquake turns TV networks into print

An 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan yesterday, and a tsunami is spreading, right now, across the Pacific ocean. Thus we have much news that is best consumed live and uncooked. Here’s mine, right now:


Not many of us carry radios in our pockets any more. Small portable TVs became passé decades ago. Smartphones, tablets and other portable Net-connected devices are now the closest things we have to universal receivers and transmitters of live news. They’re what we have in our pockets, purses and carry-bags.

The quake is coming to be called the 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami, and your best portable media to keep up with it are these:

  1. Al Jazeera English, for continuous live TV coverage (interrupted by war coverage from Libya)
  2. Twitter, for continuous brief reports and pointage to sources
  3. Wikipedia, for a continuously updated static page called 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami, with links to authoritative sources

I just looked at ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, CBC and BBC online, and all have recorded reports. None have live coverage on the Net. They are, after all, TV networks; and all TV networks are prevented from broadcasting live on the Net, either by commercial arrangements with cable and satellite TV distributors, or by laws that exclude viewing from IP addresses outside of national boundaries.

Television has become almost entirely an entertainment system, rather than a news one. Yes, news matters to TV networks, but it’s gravy. Mostly they’re entertainment businesses that also do news. This is even true (though to a lesser degree) for CNN.

At, you won’t find that anything newsworthy has happened. The website is a bunch of promos for TV shows. Same with, and Each has news departments, of course, which you’ll find, for example, at (which is currently broken, at least for me). Like CNN and BBC, these have have many written and recorded reports, but no live coverage (that you can get outside the U.K, anyway, in the case of BBC). Thus TV on the Net is no different than print media such as the New York Times. None. Hey, the Times has video reports too.

NPR has the same problem. You don’t get live radio from them. Still, you do get live radio from nearly all its member stations. Not true for TV. Lots of TV stations have iPhone, iPad and Android apps, but none feature live network video feeds, again because the networks don’t want anything going “over the top” (of the cable system) through Net-connected devices. This is a dumb stance, in the long run, which gets much shorter with each major breaking news story.

Here’s the take-away: emergencies such as wars and earthquakes demonstrate a simple and permanent fact of media life: that the Net is the new TV and the new radio, because it has subsumed both. It would be best for both TV and radio to normalize to the Net and quit protecting their old distribution systems.

Another angle: the Live Web has finally branched off the Static Web (as I wrote about in Linux Journal, back in 2005), and is fast becoming our primary means for viewing and listening to news. To borrow a geologic metaphor, the vast tectonic plates of TV and radio are being subsumed along their leading edges by the Live Web. Thus today’s wars and earthquakes are tectonic events for media old and new. The mountain ranges and civilizations that will build up along the new margins will be on the Live Web’s plate, not the old TV, radio and print plates.

A plug… Those  worried about how to pay for the change should support the VRM community’s development of EmanciPay. We believe the best consumers of media will become the best customers of media only by means that the consumers themselves control. For free media that’s worth more than nothing (as earthquake and war coverage certainly are), the pricing gun needs to be in the hands of the customer, not just the vendor (all of which have their own different ways of being paid, or no means at all). We need a single standard way that users can say “I like that and want to pay for it, and here’s how I’m going to do that.” Which is what EmanciPay proposes. The demand side needs its own ways and means, and those cannot (and should not) be provided only by the supply side, or it will continue to be fractured into a billion silos. (That number is a rough estimate of commercial sites on the Web.) More about all this in another post soon. (It’s at the front of my mind right now, because some of us will be meeting to talk about it here in Austin at SXSW.)

Meanwhile, back to your irregularly unscheduled programs.

[Later…]  I’ll add notes here…

  • Joey Trotz reports that has four live streams. And, as others say below, so does the BBC. All can be viewed on a browser with Flash, and a disabled popup window blocker. Therefore some laptops and Android devices should also be covered, to a degree; but it’s all bit of a kluge. To me the standard is a live stream using at least a relatively open standard like .mp3 for audio and whatever-it-is that Al Jazeera is using for video (on the iPhone and iPad, at least, it can’t be Flash, so what is it?). The key: ease of viewing (fewest clicks) or listening. This means an app, usually, as of today. Note that nearly all smartphones in use today will be old hat two years from now.
  • I just downloaded and added the CNN app to my iPhone. It has “live” in its tabs, but the picture isn’t moving for me. Not sure what that means.
  • Thanks to Danilo, in the comments below, for suggesting that I make clear some distinctions that at least a couple commenters have missed. I do that in this comment here, and I’ll say it here as well. This post is not a slam on the good work that broadcasters do. Nor am I declaring the death of TV and radio as we know it. I am using AND logic here, not OR. When I say the Net is subsuming radio and TV, and that broadcasters need to normalize to the Net, I am saying that the Net is becoming the base medium. Broadcasters need to be streaming online as well as over the air and over cable. Back when he renewed his contract with SiriusXM, Howard Stern said as much about satellite radio. The new base medium for Howard’s SiriusXM channels, as well as all the other channels in the satellite radio lineup, is the Internet. Satellite distribution will become the backup live stream service, rather than the main distribution system. This is why Howard has been out stumping on TV talk shows for the SiriusXM smartphone app. Yes, it is true that the satellite system will cover many areas that the cell and wi-fi distribution system will not. But the reverse will also be true. SiriusXM on the Net is a global service, rather than one restricted to North America. The service is also not capacity-limited in the number of files and streams that can be offered, which is the case with satellite alone. Another point I’m making is that TV networks especially are restricted in their ability to stream by the deals they have with cable companies, and (in the case of, say, the BBC) by blocked use over IP addresses outside national boundaries. These are severely limiting as more and more viewing moves to hand-held devices. And those limitations need to be faced. Al Jazeera shows what can be done when the limits aren’t there.


  1. Joe Crawford’s avatar

    Very apt. The observation of the disconnect for live coverage between internet and cable or broadcast tv is not one I’d considered before, and it really damns television as she is spoke these days.

  2. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    During Iran-Contra Oliver North said “CNN runs ten minutes ahead of NSA” when talking about the media’s speed over government agencies. But just as words like “Iran Contra” and “Oliver North” now seem dated, so too does the concept of “CNN” being for ‘breaking news’.

    Twitter is 15-20 minutes ahead of CNN. It’s not always accurate, but it’s lightning fast. Here in Hong Kong we got the first tweets from friends in Japan well before anyone was covering anything on the television. In fact, I had my first “R U OK” messages going out to friends in Tokyo before it was on the television.

    Later we had more access to ‘local’ coverage from Asian stations, but still I’ve found the web to be offering far more interesting and insightful coverage. Al Jazeera was doing a good job (while Libya was sleeping) but now they’re stuck between two major stories (waves hitting the small Pacific islands / USA vs. Libya). NHK World (English service) has an iPhone app as well, and to keep up with the bandwidth they threw up a Ustream channel today. (or just search for NHK–they have several feeds)

    The other thing that has been amazing has been the Citizentube channel of Youtube. Youtube has opened a channel for ‘late breaking’ news stories as submitted by their viewers. I’ve seen it on the web and then on CNN later.

  3. lou josephs’s avatar

    Catching this live on NHK which is carried on the digital channels of PBS station WNVC in the DC area available on Comcast and FIOS. Live video on the right

  4. Lydia Aguirre’s avatar

    Thanks for this interesting post. Just a little remark: I was just cheking how tv sites are covering the news from Japan and found live coverage at BBC:

    I don’t know whether they started it after you watched it or they go from live to recorded coverage.
    Best regards

  5. Jon’s avatar

    I disagree… I’ve been watching BBC Live on the net all day (i’m in Europe), maybe its not visible in the US.

    Al Jazzera is also a network in the same manner that CNN is just maybe more forward thinking. They’re the underdog in the US so they have to think different.

    Most video you see being flicked around on twitter is coming from NHK, another network. Twitter also has some good clips from people on the ground but any sort of overview you’re getting on the bigger picture is definitely from a wire or a network. Even the Wikipedia article frequently quotes AFP, Reuters etc.

  6. Barbara Smith’s avatar

    You make valuable points and to them I would add the quality of the tv coverage is atrocious.

    The BBC does have live video coverage, but it is for those in the UK (or those outside the UK who can figure out how to access it). Their video coverage is FAR superior to CNN or MSNBC. Despite the rapidness with which the situation is changing, they are updating their video and coverage to include new information and analysis. I am not sure what CNN and MSNBC are doing except featuring those who are barely articulate to offer ridiculous advice.

  7. Karl Hakkarainen’s avatar

    For a good while early this morning (Eastern US), the BBC was carrying a live fee. They now have a slide saying that live coverage will resume shortly. (16:16GMT)

  8. Daniel’s avatar

    In you media you seem to forget nhk world
    They have been broadcasting live since the very beginning

  9. Donald Eubank’s avatar

    That may be true for the US media reporting on overseas events, but for US outlets reporting on US events, or in this case, the Japanese media reporting on Japanese events, TV is still strong. Watching the earthquake and tsunami story unfold from Tokyo, NHK, Fuji TV, TBS and the rest have been right on top of the story, some better than others, but as a whole, making TV the place to find out first what is going on.

  10. Ted Lemon’s avatar

    Actually, Al Jazeera is also using flash. They have to, at least for now–support for HTML 5 streaming video is only in the newest browsers. I haven’t even been able to get streaming video from Al Jazeera any other way, although I presume from your writing that you’ve been able to view it on some kind of non-Flash device.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Ted, the iPhone and iPad don’t support Flash. So what are we watching there for Al Jazeera, et. al.? Forgive me for not knowing the answer, but I don’t.

    Daniel, I’m writing from a U.S. location with a U.S. perspective. Forgive that, if you can.

    My frame here is portable devices, specifically smartphones. It should be clear by now that all TV and radio are going to be streams and files more than they are signals, and that some of these will be free while others will require payment. That’s the future: streams and files, some free and some paid. TV and radio need to adapt. Simple as that. Smartphones and pads are just the beginning of the end for the old signal-based broadcast systems.

  12. MR’s avatar

    True, you won’t find anything about the tsunami on – but that’s because you’re looking in the wrong place. Go to their news site –

  13. David Kearns’s avatar

    The fact that Apple thumbed their nose at Adobe isn’t the BBCs fault. Get a real portable media player – one that supports industry standard flash.

  14. Hugh’s avatar

    Incidentally, the “whatever-it-is that Al Jazeera is using for video” is Real Player. No kidding.

    This is way off topic, but: has Apple’s avoidance of Flash forced open a window of opportunity for our old friend and enemy Real?

  15. Leo’s avatar <– follow the link

  16. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Hugh, is the Real Player the open source version? Or has Apple decided to support one proprietary format but not another?

  17. Allegra’s avatar

    I was flicking back and forth between Aljaz and CBC and CNN this morning. Twitter isn’t perfect but it self-rights pretty fast; the networks just broadcast the same tape loops over and over again.

  18. invitedmedia’s avatar

    as a commenter said elsewhere when the topic was ‘broadcasters in washington dc trying to salvage local markets’-

    “local markets: how quaint.”

    news is one big global market now. but don’t tell broadcasters that, they’ll have no reason to go the washington dc every year and plead their case.

  19. Chris Stankiewicz’s avatar

    If there’s an intersection of the “Live Web” and “Static Web,” I’d suggest that it’s the nexus occupied by curators of online video content. With a delay that’s impeded only by the speed of the connection, a site like ours is able to aggregate international news coverage as it occurs and contextualize it for the media consumer. News media which is aggregated and curated in real time weaves a media fabric whose content can be explored diachronically, geographically and ideologically.

  20. Scott Westerman’s avatar

    Great points as always, Doc:

    If you haven’t experimented with the Roku box, I highly recommend it. There are dedicated channels for both BBC News and Al Jazeera. The streams have been reliable all day. We quickly gravitated to the Beeb this morning, with Twitter as our newswire. Andy Carvin @acarvin is doing a terrific job of aggregating.

  21. Suzanne’s avatar

    “Here’s the take-away: emergencies such as wars and earthquakes demonstrate a simple and permanent fact of media life: that the Net is the new TV and the new radio, because it has subsumed both. It would be best for both TV and radio to normalize to the Net and quit protecting their old distribution systems.”

    This is so wrong-headed that I can’t even believe it has been committed to print. Read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles from today about how cel phones wouldn’t work, power was out, phone lines and the internet were down, but people in Japan were being kept up to date and watching the story unfold live via good ol’ broadcast TV and, in Japan, NHK’s ability to stream broadcast TV to smart phones (a capability which is coming in the US in the next couple of years). People in Tokyo actually received a warning about the quake from the world’s first quake warning system – which was delivered to them via RADIO AND TV. In extreme circumstances, broadcasting is the Last Man Standing. So, under your scenario, let’s get broadcasters to give up a business model that has proven itself for 90 years, and trash our last-ditch ability to communicate and get information out to people. Okay. So when the power goes out, which it will, and the internet goes down, which it will, we’ll all be staring at our blank TV screens and our blank smartphones and wondering what the hell happened. Seriously, Doc, you should get out of your ivory tower once in a while.

  22. Bill Johnstone’s avatar

    Respectfully, Mr. Searls … BULL! Radio and Television is very much alive and was “alive” in Japan during the Tsunami. If belly-achers and nay-sayers would open their ears and eyes and reconize what is right in front of them (and in their pocket or purse), they’d acknowlege that they'[re holding a portable Radio and portable TV in their “cell phone”. When the cell tower gets knocked down, and when the Internet goes dark, the BROADCASTERS continue to risk “life and limb” to keep their station’s signal on the air, and with Smartphones and FM enabled telephones, the RADIO and the TELEVISION signal can still be received on your cellphone – even though the phone service is dead. New technology is as new as that old RADIO you tend to forget about.

  23. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Respectfully, Bill and Suzanne, you haven’t understood what I’m saying. I am acknowledging that viewers are “holding a portable Radio and portable TV in their ‘cell phone’.” I’m not saying that TV and radio are dead. All I’m pointing out is that the old distribution system can’t be the only distribution system. I’m not calling for killing off transmitters, and I’m not saying the broadcasters are bad at doing their jobs. I am saying broadcasters need to realize that what the cable companies call “over the top” is becoming normal rather than exceptional, and that embracing it is the best course of action. Al Jazeera can embrace the Net because Al Jazeera isn’t tied down by bad laws or crippling distribution agreements that require not streaming on the Net. And Suzanne, the scenario I see is not one in which old business models get killed off, but one in which new business models are welcomed.

    Suzanne, we need AND logic here, not OR. If we have AND, one survives when the other goes down. In Japan radio and TV survived when cells went down. Here in the U.S., one can watch live coverage from Al Jazeera on smartphones because national and international broadcasters haven’t gone up with live streams to mobile devices. Eventually every broadcaster will need to stream as well as broadcast the usual way. It helps to see this as opportunity rather than threat.

  24. Danilo Stanton’s avatar

    Doc, you should draw out the distinction you’re trying to make (and that you appear to be presenting in your last comment) in the blog post itself. For as I read it, I came to agree completely with Suzanne, and it wasn’t until I read your comment that I saw the points of agreement.

  25. Flip SlideHD’s avatar

    It’s really sad to see this happen to Japan especially after the Christchurch earthquake that recently happened in New Zealand (where I am from).

    I don’t specificall watch those T.V networks you mentioned above but I just wanted to say that most of the networks I watch here in New Zealand take advantage of the internet and most people here don’t really watch news on portable devices. In the end of the day, portable devices will not work without power anyway.

  26. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Flip Side, from what I gather (such as from this Vodaphone page), carriers in New Zealand have data limits and usage costs that discourage live viewing of video streams on smartphones. I’d welcome details on that, though.

  27. Phil Hood’s avatar

    Radio and TV are important, and, in biological terms, network diversity is important. I’ve felt for many years that underground fiber is probably a national defense issue. No way are we ready to entrust 3Gand twitter for all communications, though future analogs may work.

    Finally, we need to pay journalists. Emancipay is just a vision. But the need for talented reporters, camerapersons, and helicopter pilots to be compensated for flying over dangerous tsunamis or fires is a fact. The loss of the traditional music industry offers minor irritations compared to the need to have a reliable, newsgathering industry.

  28. Gareth’s avatar

    You can’t have looked very hard. The BBC has massive promotion for ‘LIVE’ on their news front page ( with live video and text updates running throughout the world at:

  29. Donald Eubank’s avatar

    Don’t know about New Zealand, but in Tokyo, as Japan Times reporter Tomoko Otake (jt_TomokoOtake) tweeted yesterday: “Smartphone is a phone after all, it’s having a hard time accessing to the Net. PC Net, twitter is great”. Phone lines in Tokyo were completely blocked for the first 12 hours, disconnecting any attempts to call, but landline internet connections have been steady.

  30. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Gareth, I’m talking here about portable devices, especially smartphones and pads. The BBC Live coverage is only on the website and doesn’t do video on iphones (all I can check right now) here in the U.S. on The beeb server sees it’s a phone, gives it, and delivers no live video.

  31. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Phil, correct that EmanciPay is “just a vision” at this point. But it’s also a plan. It will happen, whether we get the Knight News Challenge grant or not. It’s all about sustaining the news industry, including news gathering. If you want to see that kind of work sustained, vote up EmanciPay at that link.

  32. Hugh’s avatar

    @Doc Searls, you asked about Al Jazeera’s Real Player being open source: I wasn’t aware that there was an open source Real Player. I based my comment on the fact that when I opened the AJ streaming page Chrome asked me to install a plugin, which turned out to come as a bundle with the entire Real Player application (loathed Message Center included).

    Is there an open source version of the client-side browser plugin? I should have used that.

    If you can view the stream on your iOS device, I guess it must have *some* version of the Real plugin installed.

  33. Kerry oslund’s avatar

    As mentioned by Bill Johnstone, the Japanese people have mobile “broadcast” tv on their cell phones. Many used it as an information lifeline when cell, data and power were down. Last night, as Tokyo conserved power with a city wide blackout, many Japanese again turned to mobile TV. FB and Twitter playing huge roles, but so is a new kind of TV…mobile TV.

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