Real estate brokerages in the Chicago area are flocking to a service that puts their branding on a widescreen video player that streams slick shorts about different facets of the city’s neighborhoods, from restaurants and nightlife to parks, schools and hospitals.

A basic version of the video player, Chicago Neighborhood Explorer, is available for free, but most Realtors are choosing to pay for a premium level of service that allows them to custom brand the player and add property videos and listings, said Peter Braun, founder and president of P3 New Media Group LLC.

By contracting with advertisers who want to reach local consumers, P3 has built a library of free neighborhood videos from 5,000 hours of high-definition (HD) footage the company has shot in the Chicago area, Braun said.

P3 is able to make the basic Web video player available free, because the company’s ad-based model depends on putting the videos in front of many eyeballs.

"Realtors are on limited budgets — times are hard," Braun said. "We think ad-supported content that is syndicated is a successful model."

Some marketing experts say consumers are turned off by ads when they are embedded at the beginning of a video, or don’t watch them when they’re appended to the end. The Chicago Neighborhood Explorer video player addresses the issue by placing small, unobtrusive display ads around the basic player’s screen, which serves up more detailed information from advertisers only when the ads are clicked.

"These are Flash micro sites, and since they are in Flash, they (advertisers) can do anything they want with them," Braun said, including video. Flash is a type of software that is used to add multimedia content and interactive features to Web sites.

A subscription-based premium service that starts at $59 a month provides a custom-branded video player with access to P3’s library of shorts, plus the ability to stream agent profiles and property tour videos. The company offers to produce videos for $500 to $5,000 depending on the customer’s requirements.

Although the Chicago Neighborhood Explorer is not targeted exclusively at Realtors — chambers of commerce and sites that cater to apartment hunters and tourists are other likely adopters — a number of Chicago-area brokerages have already created branded players. The brokerages include brands like Coldwell Banker, Keller Williams, Century 21, Prudential, RE/MAX, Sotheby’s and GMAC Real Estate.

It’s a model that the company can expand into any market, Braun said, although there’s considerable legwork involved in signing up advertising sponsors and shooting and producing the videos. Getting off the ground in Chicago has been a big project, and while the company has its eyes on other markets, Braun wouldn’t say where the company might go next.

"The top 25 MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas) are in our sights," Braun said.

In addition to building a library of videos, there’s also the technical challenge of getting them to stream in real time. P3 New Media Group relies on Akamai servers to ensure smooth delivery.

The videos the company has shot in Chicago are noticeably brighter and crisper than typical Internet video, and make good use of HD’s wider 16:9 aspect ratio. Some minor visual "artifacts" from compressing the huge HD files for Web streaming are sometimes apparent, especially when the camera is panning or zooming.

The videos are compressed to a standard below true HD for smooth streaming over the Internet, Braun said, but P3 can also provide clients with hard copies of full-sized HD files for presentations in settings like open houses.

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