Ebert's Internet

October 17, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli

It was twenty years ago this past July when I found in my e-mail’s inbox a note from Roger Ebert. This began an unusual friendship with the world’s foremost film critic. What better way to mark the anniversary than with a few reminiscences? Roger was generous with both his time and his praise. I often felt unworthy of both. In a 1996 piece he penned for the now defunct Yahoo! Internet Life (a print publication for which he was a regular columnist) he wrote the following “…some of the Web-based critics are excellent, and there is one, James Berardinelli who stands above the crowd.”

Roger and I first met in person at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1997 and, although we subsequently broke bread together at a number of other festivals, including the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema (where he had his first cheesesteak), Sundance, and The Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, I remember our initial encounter most clearly. After first shaking hands following a screening of Gattaca, we went to dinner then wandered the streets of Toronto. Our walk lasted an hour and our talk covered many areas. It was then that I learned how passionate Roger was about the Internet and where he imagined it might be going.

Remember – this was 1997. You could count on one hand the number of print/TV critics with an online presence. Roger’s TV partner, Gene Siskel, knew little about the Internet and, according to Roger, wasn’t motivated to learn more. Most of those writing on-line didn’t have other outlets. Roger was a pioneer. He didn’t just license his print reviews to Compuserve in the mid- and late-1990s – he became a vocal and vital participant in their forums. He was as approachable on-line as he was off-line. During our Toronto walk, he would stop and take pictures or sign autographs when approached. He was gracious and polite. On-line, he was the same way.

In 1997, Roger believed that the Internet represented the future of journalism. A lifetime newspaperman, he admitted this with some sadness. He didn’t think the daily would die, at least not in the near future, but he expected it to become a “niche item”, beloved by a small-but-devoted group of readers who loved the feel and smell of a newspaper. I’ll admit to never being one of them. I grew up among newspaper readers but never acquired the habit. I found papers to be unwieldy and didn’t like the way the ink stained my fingers. Call me fussy.

What fascinated me the most about Roger’s future view was how he thought finances would work. He envisioned an era in which most everything would be available on-line. Technological limitations on wireless communication would be solved, allowing virtually unlimited bandwidth for almost no cost. We would be free to use the Internet anywhere, anytime, no longer tethered to Ethernet-connected computers. T1 speeds would be available to everyone with hand-held Internet browsers (which turned out to be smart phones). Remarkably prescient, no?

The Internet would have its own currency (not bitcoins). Everyone who used it would pay a variable monthly fee. He likened it to an electricity bill. The more one used, the more one would pay. There would be no price to get onto the ‘Net or read e-mail. The cost would come from surfing the Web. Roger admitted that he hadn’t figured out all the details but, in a nutshell, this is how it would work… Everyone would have a “hit register” or “hit counter” that would record basic information about every Internet visit they made. (In the 1990s, web traffic was typically measured in “hits” rather than “page views”, which are more common today. I can’t remember the last time I was asked how may “hits” Reelviews gets. The number is astronomical because every downloaded item on a page causes a “hit”, including images and ads.) At the end of the month, those hits would be tallied up and a bill would be generated. The cost might be a penny per 10 hits or something along those lines. Half of the total would go to the ISP. The other half would be apportioned to the website owners whose sites were recipients of the hits.

In 1997, most people who surfed the web did so in a limited fashion from work. The average user might rack up a few dozen to a hundred hits each day (weekdays only). So they might be on the hook for 10 cents, or $2.50 per month. Heavy users might accrue ten times that, but even $25 didn’t seem too bad – that was on par with a cable bill or (landline) phone bill. In its early days (1998), ReelViews was getting about 5000 hits per day, so that meant I would be paid $25 daily, or a little over $9000 per year. Not bad. Five years later, my traffic had increased tenfold. Under Ebert’s plan, I would have gotten $90,000 annually. No need for ads or Patreon under those circumstances. I could have quit my day job by 2005 and written/reviewed full-time. But, as we all know, this is one area in which Ebert’s future fortune telling wasn’t accurate. 

I am of the belief that, had Roger’s vision come to fruition, the Internet would be a better place to spend time today. Of course, scammers would discover exploits – that’s always the way of things. There would be countless click-bait equivalents. But genuine content providers, those who wanted to make a living wage by providing sites that people enjoyed and returned to, would automatically be recompensed for their efforts. Scam sites would see revenue dry up as people avoided them. Alas, there wasn’t enough money in this approach for the major telecommunications players. (Keep in mind that I know a thing or two about what goes on behind-the-scenes in that industry – I worked there for 28 years.)

Real-world implementation of this plan would have encountered a major hurdle, though: movie steaming. The biggest bandwidth hog is also the most popular use of the Internet. In 1997, watching an “on-line video” meant downloading a small, grainy clip using a 56k modem. The concept of capturing an entire movie (never mind one in HD quality) was futuristic. The idea of “streaming” something was beyond late-1990s technological limits. I don’t know what Roger would have thought of the ubiquitous use of iPads and iPhones as tiny movie screens. He was always a proponent of being in a theater with others, attending screenings until his poor health no longer allowed it. Watching a movie at home, even in a well-equipped home theater, was a “different, inferior experience” (his words, not mine). I suspect he would have been okay with using smart phones for second or third viewings but not for a first exposure.

Roger’s conception of Internet financing will never come true. The forces that control the Internet – telecommunications companies, cable companies, and ISPs (primarily) - would have too much to lose to adopt such a model. But many of his other prognostications were on-target. Barring some kind of global catastrophe (and it would have to be huge – multiple redundancies make the Internet incredibly resilient), the on-line world will continue to evolve. Even Gene Roddenberry might be surprised how close we are coming to a real-world Talos IV.

It has been more than four years since Roger Ebert shuffled off this mortal coil. I often wonder whether, without his support and encouragement, I would still be writing reviews. He boosted my profile and gave me legitimacy at a time when most people either didn’t know what the “Internet” was or scoffed at my description of being an “on-line reviewer.” Roger was instrumental in getting me accepted by studio skeptics, local publicists, and the Toronto Film Festival (I was the first on-line critic to be accredited there). And it all started twenty years ago with a simple e-mail:

“Hi Jim. Roger Ebert here. Just wanted to drop you this note to let you know how much I appreciate your writing. If you’re ever in Chicago, let me know and we’ll grab a bite or catch a movie. Best of luck. RE.”