10 YEARS OF CBC.CA


Seemed like a good idea at the time…and other growing pains

By Paul Gorbould

"The Internet is just CB radio for the '90s," a now-retired CBC Radio executive is said to have told his colleagues a decade ago.

In terms of prognostication, the comment ranks up there with IBM chairman Thomas Watson's 1943 prediction that "there is a world market for maybe five computers," and Bill Gates' 1981 assertion that "640K ought to be enough for anybody." (There's significant evidence that both statements are apocryphal. Perhaps the "CB radio" quote will one day be likewise disavowed.)

Fact or fiction, all three men can and should be forgiven for not being able to see into the future. Those who claim they can are either fabulously rich, or liars, or both.

In the heady early days of the Wild Wild Web, nobody knew where the "Information Superhighway" would lead. In 1996, just like 2006, it was the job of web pioneers to explore all side roads, to find out which ones were dead ends and which ones led somewhere interesting.

Some of the things we tried were unmitigated successes. Others… not so much.

The following is a completely subjective collection of experiments in web design and content that, for whatever reason, didn't take during the formative years of CBC.ca. (The author can be blamed for at least two of them.) Some were good ideas that weren't right for the time, the medium or the corporation. Others were just plain bad, and have thankfully gone the way of the CB radio, the Betamax, and the blink tag.

WEB DESIGN: FORM OVER FUNCTION

There really was a time when the internet was considered “new media.” It was an unfamiliar vehicle for information and ideas usually found in print, or on the radio or television. And nobody was sure who the audience was, or what it wanted.

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Stating the obvious

Early CBC.ca designers feared that visiting a website would prove to be an unfamiliar experience. So they decided to make the journey as comfortable as possible by creating an onscreen metaphor to ease the way.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
Ideas' "stack of books" imagemap from February 1998. The graphic was edited regularly and saved as a two-colour .gif file (under 7k)

One example was an early version of the site for the CBC Radio program Ideas. Producer Max Allen asked for something that would reflect the site’s intelligent, deep and varied content on a single web page. During a brainstorming meeting in front of a computer, he suggested a stack of books. The first sketch, done in Microsoft Paint, became the final product.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
"Promo rips" from the 1998 IDEAS site. Other models resembled magnetic fridge clips and Post-It notes.]

As if that weren’t obvious enough, upcoming shows and pages were promoted using an equally old-fashioned metaphor: a push-pinned note, scanned and placed on the splash page.

Television websites also grasped for a metaphor. The 1998 Newsworld website’s navigation featured a black remote control to the left of each page. Presumably those used to clicking from their sofas would feel more comfortable clicking with their computer mouse.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC4Kids in April 2000, and Kids' CBC Preschool in 2006. Shaking your monitor won't actually refresh the page.


Recreating familiar three-dimensional objects was a bit of a running theme, sometimes with better results. The CBC4Kids site, seeking a remote control for the junior set, designed that site's navigation in 1997 to resemble an Etch-a-Sketch. The concept worked well for children, and a similar version is in use today. Some concepts really were good ideas at the time!

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
Newsworld's "remote control" navigation, from December 1998

 

Images, backgrounds, and background images

There’s no simpler way to dress up a functional-yet-boring website than adding… a bunch of lines.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
From Newsworld's "Spaghetti background" phase, December 1996.

The first Newsworld Online site took “online” literally, placing its text on top of a background of squiggly lines. Visitors were divided over whether it looked more like a well-used skating rink or a plate of pasta.

Wiggly lines were also added to the CBC Radio website masthead in 1997, when designers added a green audio waveform to the familiar logo. High tech!

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC Radio's physics-defying 1997 audio waveform

Of course, those who actually understood high tech quickly pointed out that this looked nothing like a real waveform (a mathematical representation of a wave’s characteristics over time.) The end of this one tilted to the right – meaning that the sound would have to travel forward and backward in time.

Paint it black

Green and grey lines on white backgrounds "paled" in comparison to CBC.ca’s darkest period: the all-black website.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
One of several Turn the Web Black” explanatory graphics that graced darkened sites in 1996.

Around 1995, an advertising agency offered to sell ads on the CBC website. They needed to redesign the site to accommodate the ads, and CBC paid them to do so. The result, according to CBC.ca business director Bob Kerr, was horrific. The site was full of frames (difficult to navigate, print or bookmark) and featured a flat black background with silver text (difficult to read, let alone print.) And it didn't look like a broadcasting website.

“The only thing making money on the web at the time was porn,” says Kerr. “They came back with a site that looked like a porn site.”

When the agency asked for more money to fix the hated design, they were unceremoniously dumped and the site was redesigned. “They never did sell an ad for us,” Kerr recalls.

(Incidentally, a year later several CBC radio pages “went black” voluntarily. In February 1996, thousands of sites worldwide temporarily adopted black backgrounds to protest Bill Clinton’s Communications Decency Act. Civil liberties groups believed the act amounted to internet censorship. They spearheaded an online “Turn the Web Black” campaign, which a few rogue CBC webmasters observed.)

BROADBAND: PUSH, PULL AND PROMO

CBC began experimenting with online multimedia as early as December 1993, introducing audio on demand in 1995. The following year saw video reports from Newsworld made available on demand, and live audio streaming of CBC Radio One and Two.

Not content to simply offer existing audio and video from CBC Radio and Television, CBC.ca staff looked for ways to create and deliver their own multimedia programming – whether or not the audience actually wanted it.

Webcasting: The world on a modem

When CBC acquired the ability to stream audio from CBC Radio, it also became possible to deliver live audio and video from just about anywhere. With a laptop and a phone connection, staff could “webcast” an event from a Toronto lecture hall to a listener on the other side of the world.

The technology allowed CBC.ca expose a limitless audience to speakers including Massey Lecturers Jean Vanier (1998) and Michael Ignatieff (2000), and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier (1998). CBC arts site Infoculture produced live events from the red carpet of the Genie Awards and from the much-anticipated 1999 premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC Infoculture’s first webcast was musician and scientist Jaron Lanier.

As it turned out, the technology worked but the demand for lo-fi appointment computer listening wasn’t particularly large.

Webcasting only solved half of the equation that would make podcasting so popular a decade later. Users want have access to audio wherever they are, but also whenever they want it.

With the exception of a few high-profile events (e.g. the 2003 "Toronto Rocks" SARS benefit featuring the Rolling Stones, the 2005 Canada For Asia concert) and simulcasts of televised news events, CBC webcasting has mostly fallen to the wayside.

“I’m your host…”

Offerings at the CBC website got more and more complicated every day: News stories, backgrounders, columns, audio, video, discussion… how was a poor CBC.ca surfer supposed to keep track?

One option that became feasible in the era of broadband was to provide a sort of cyberspace tour guide, a friendly face to introduce the newest and most interesting features on the site.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
Bob Sudeyko and Alissa Levy of Cyber Central

The job was given to Bob Sudeyko, a former Newsworld host who came to CBC.ca in 1999. Each morning, Sudeyko would survey the latest site content, write a script, and find a television studio where he would shoot a 30-second roundup video of CBC.ca’s latest and greatest. The feature was called "Cyber Central."

Performing for the web was new ground for Sudeyko. “Should I be wearing a tie and suit, or something more casual?” he recalls pondering. “This was the web, after all.” (He went casual).

Sudeyko’s roundups were automatically inserted at the start of the hourly online Newsworld newscasts, a move he suspects annoyed a few people.

“I was always leery of that. If I want to watch the news, should I really be forced to watch 30 seconds of some guy telling me about CBC.ca first?”

Sudeyko says he never did find out whether many people watched his clips, or how they felt about them. As CBC Radio, Television and CBC.ca got better at promoting each other, the need for CBC.ca’s own video promos vanished.

“Nobody mentioned CBC.ca in the early days,” Sudeyko says. “Now it’s routine.”

Don’t call us, we’ll call you

One of CBC.ca’s most interesting broadband projects was the trial of a product called CBC Home Delivery. It was a weekly, Flash-based package of CBC audio, video and web content delivered to directly to a subscriber’s computer using “push” technology (it was automatically downloaded on your computer; you didn’t have to go get it.)

Advertised as a “full screen multimedia magazine”, Home Delivery began delivering in February 2003. Episodes loaded in the background when a user’s computer was online and had unused bandwidth.

“The home delivery project really came out of a desire to find a way to get rich content to people in their homes without them having to go to a lot of work,” CBC Radio 3’s Robert Ouimet said in an interview with Macromedia (who praised the product as a “Groundbreaking Site.”)

“I have never seen the kind of positive reaction the home delivery project is getting,” Ouimet proclaimed, comparing it to the excitement of the mid-1990s, when online audio first became available.

Online, reaction to the new technology varied. “Unlike good old Pointcast (remember that?), this freaking rocks,” proclaimed one blogger. But others saw it as overly-complex window dressing on content that was better off on its own.

“I have to question who exactly the market for “news as Depeche Mode videos,” said another blogger, who called the new format, “a sort of virtual mayonnaise to slather over content to make the young ones think it’s not their father’s CBC.”

The Home Delivery trial ended on Sept. 29, 2003 with Issue 33, and the project has not been continued – although the cbchomedelivery.com website still houses archived editions, and announces hopefully that, “If CBC Home Delivery should become an on-going service, we will contact our subscribers by e-mail to let them know.”

Any other bright ideas?

In 2006, the internet continues to change and evolve faster than radio or television ever did. To stay on the leading edge, CBC.ca staff – like everyone else – continue to try new things, and see which ones stick.

The learning process continues. Ten years from now, who knows what people looking back at us today will consider good ideas at the time?

Until then… that's a big 10-4, good buddy!


Paul Gorbould is one of CBC.ca's first full-time employees. He came to CBC in 1995 after receiving a master's degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. In 1997 he produced the CBC4Kids website and created sites for CBC Radio programs. Since 2002 he has worked on the award-winning CBC Digital Archives website.