Mike Homer sees the future of public broadcasting, and it's on the Internet.
Or rather, it is the Internet.
Homer and erstwhile Netscape wunderkind Marc Andreessen are using file-sharing technology to distribute audio and video files for free online. Unlike Kazaa and other popular "peer-to-peer" programs, however, Open Media Network allows only authorized sharing and weeds out bootlegged goods.
The nonprofit network is designed to be an outlet for anyone who creates audiovisual works -- be it an independent filmmaker, a public television station or a hobbyist with a camera or a microphone.
The effort tries to tap the growth in noncommercial and grass-roots media epitomized by weblogs, the personal websites frequently updated with fresh reporting, commentary and creativity.
Weblogs have grown from a handful of sites in 1997 to about 31 million today, by Open Media Network's count.
More broadly, the rise in high-speed Internet connections has fueled an evolution of the Web from a medium heavy on text and graphics into a source of music and moving pictures as well. And the proliferation of low-priced digital camcorders and recording gear has created millions of potential producers of entertainment and information in search of an audience.
The challenge for organizations such as Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Open Media Network, though, is generating a market for this new material, said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
Such efforts can attract an audience if users can easily pick through the "undifferentiated mass" and find what interests them, Palfrey said. "But I think most of them are going to fail," he added, because "they won't get that stuff right, and it will just be a mass that's very hard to sort through."
All the same, the field has drawn some big players. Both Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. are building collections of video files -- including television shows and homemade movies -- that users can search through and, in some cases, watch.
"I really believe there's a big, huge publishing revolution," said Homer, who has provided some of the start-up capital for Open Media Network. "A new system like this can take advantage of it."
Open Media Network's approach is different from Google's and Yahoo's in at least two important ways.
First, Homer said, Open Media Network will offer several means to help people navigate through its offerings. Today it expects to launch a TV-style program guide that sorts its files by type and topic, as well as lists the most popular ones. Later this year, it plans to let users rate files, post comments about them and provide descriptive tags to help identify the files to searchers.
Second, users can download copies of files on the network, rather than just watch them or read transcripts. Open Media Network's file-sharing technology, which comes from Kontiki Inc. of Sunnyvale, slashes distribution costs by having users download popular files from one another's computers, not Open Media Network's servers.
Kontiki tries to deter piracy by keeping a tight lid on the material that users can share. This central control makes it difficult to publish copyrighted audio or video on Open Media Network without the copyright owner's permission, and easy to remove anything that proves to be pirated, Homer said.
The network also can distribute files with electronic locks, enabling copyright owners to restrict copying or demand fees for playback.
Homer, Kontiki's founder and chairman, said the several thousand files available on Open Media Network today could be downloaded free.
Later this year, though, the network plans to introduce tools that will let publishers charge for their works. The fees they generate will be split with Open Media Network, helping to cover its costs, Homer said.
Among the network's first suppliers are numerous audio and video bloggers such as Silver Lake-based Shannon Noble, creator of "This Is Vlog," whose works are already syndicated online.
Others include Cinequest, a San Jose-based motion picture institute that offers independent features and short films, and three public broadcasters -- KWSU in Pullman, Wash., KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston.
John Boland, KQED's chief content officer, said his company was experimenting with several alternative ways to deliver its TV and radio programming "to try to meet what we feel the demand of consumers will be, which is to have their content where they want it when they want it."
Using the Internet not only helps KQED retain supporters by keeping up with their shifting habits but also helps the station to reach new ones, said Boland and Tim Olson, director of KQED Interactive.
The station's flexibility to experiment is limited by "mind-boggling" copyright issues, Boland said. Still, Olson said, the company is working with several online distributors because "it's so early in this marketplace that it's really hard to say how it's going to shake out."