One of ABC’s few bona fide hits in the 1990s was The Drew Carey Show. The show, which aired from 1995 through 2004 could be thought of as a Generation X take on Seinfeld. In the show, a beleaguered department-store executive (Carey) went through his work and home life with the help of his friends, including his platonic friend Kate (Christa Miller.) For the first several seasons, the show followed a largely episodic, pleasingly plotless arc.
Like Seinfeld, the show was popular among nihilistic young people of the day. Unlike Seinfeld it gave into temptation and took on higher and higher stakes, with Drew’s character (also named Drew Carey) going through job travails and eventually gaining a traditional family.
What to do with a fading show about nothing
By season five, the show had lost a lot of luster and it began to take risks designed to increase ratings. One of them became a part of streaming history. On November 10, 1999 the episode “Drew Cam” aired, becoming the first broadcast television program with simulcast internet content.
Which sounds a lot more impressive than it was. After all, this was 1999.
There was no real streaming video infrastructure in those days and most people connected via 56K modem. That speed was utterly utterly inadequate for streaming video. Even desktop computers of the day only ran about 1/40th the speed of today’s computers and phones.
Still it was an impressive accomplishment that they tried.
It wasn’t just technology
Warner Brothers (now part of AT&T) produced the show, which aired on ABC. That meant that for the first time, a content provider had to negotiate streaming rights. Not only that, but all the technology had to be put in place to make the stream happen. Akamai, a content delivery network that generally served ads and dabbled in streaming video, was tapped to provide the feed to internet service providers.
It was an ambitious experiment. Reviews of the idea were mostly strong, although the reviews of the actual streamed content were not. Instead of streaming the whole episode, the internet stream was from various web cams on the set. A great idea but it meant that you really weren’t getting anything super interesting from your internet stream.
I remember the day well. In anticipation, I’d moved the computer into the same room as the television — at that time I had but one of each. I dialed in and got a mishmash of grainy and frozen footage. It took about five minutes before I stopped paying attention to the computer screen and started simply watching the episode. It was a great idea but honestly, it was so poorly executed that it didn’t hold my attention. By that time I’d also stopped watching The Drew Carey Show anyway so I wasn’t terribly interested either way. The show would continue for another five years with slowly dwindling ratings, but without me.
What a difference 20 years makes
Of course today we take the ability to stream live in HD for granted. We do it wirelessly — another thing which was impossible in 1999 as Wi-Fi had only been introduced less than a year earlier. Back then, this was an event. Today of course we stream without even thinking about it.
I have found the actual episode online, but I haven’t found anyplace that actually has the webcam footage. I’d be more interested in that, since I never really saw it back in 1999.