Its often grainy and choppy, and the screen is about the size of your hand. The on-air talent will never win any Academy Awards, and, depending on your tastes, the subject matter can be beyond boring. Its not MTV; its GTV -- Government Television. And thanks to advancements in digital video, it may soon be playing on a PC near you.

Only a few years ago, digital video was like Bigfoot: people talked about it, but it was rarely seen. The picture quality was poor, the equipment for making the videos was expensive and, once made, the applications for the videos were few and far between. But then the Internet changed everything.

Today, digital videos can be found on the Web sites of large and small municipalities, and though the format and technical aspects vary from site to site, the goal of each presentation is always the same: Helping the public stay informed.

Streaming Meetings

Torrance, Calif., is a good example of a municipality that makes full use of video on its Web site. For years, Torrance has been broadcasting city council meetings on their government access channel. But in 1998, they also began streaming city council meetings live every Tuesday on their Web site. Each meeting is then replayed eight times throughout the week. Michael Smith, the cable administrator of Torrance, said the premise of the streaming video is to allow people who cannot attend the council meetings the opportunity to stay informed on city business.

"We set out to make city council meetings more accessible to people who did not live in the city," Smith said. "Because cable TV is jurisdictional by franchise boundaries, people who may be doing business with the city did not have access to the meetings. If you were a vendor in San Francisco and you were waiting to find out if a bid got acted on at a council meeting, you would have to wait until the next day to find out. With the streaming, anybody can log on and find out whats happening at any particular meeting."

Besides the city council meetings, Smith oversees a full slate of programming on the government access channel that also streams to the citys Web site from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. "We discovered that it was too cumbersome to keep switching back and forth between the live meetings and running the whole channel," Smith said. "So, we went ahead and just let it stream."

Each month, an average of 250 people log on to the citys Web site and view a video.

Torrance chose to stream their site for one reason: money. With the government access channel already up and running, the city had to work out an agreement and commitment between the cable-television department and the citys IT department to make the streaming video a reality. Besides some staff time, the total cost for labor was negligible.

Because the city already had a T1 line installed and an operational Web site, the only remaining costs were to purchase a computer to run the show and some Real Network software to handle the video technology. Total cost: $5,000.

Today, the output of the access channel is plugged directly into the PC and the video streams unattended 16 hours a day. Besides updating the network software once a year, Smith said there are virtually no costs for the entire site.

"A lot of people are studying the idea, and they [cant] believe that it only cost us $5,000," Smith said. "My advice -- because it is such a simple step with a big payoff -- is to just take the $5,000 and stream their channel full time."

San Carlos Interactive