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AOL had the better show for viewers

How much has the world changed in 20 years? Two decades ago, Live Aid had earnest musicians and teeming crowds, novel collaborations and enough serious rock to merit a day on the couch.

But yesterday, if you were going to spend a sunny Saturday watching a global pop music extravaganza, you had two choices: watching the joint coverage on MTV and VH1 or watching live streaming video on AOL. And small screens notwithstanding, you were far better off online.

AOL let you zip from city to city on your own, without relying on someone else's editorial decisions. AOL didn't bleep expletives from Green Day in Berlin or Madonna in London. The internet show also started earlier and ran the whole event live.

And AOL didn't interrupt its broadcast with ads: Yes, MTV and VH1 reminded us often, they were helping to raise global awareness of African poverty. But they were also raising global awareness of MTV and VH1, stocking commercial breaks with ads for the upcoming shows -- ''The Surreal Life," ''Celebrity Fit Club," ''The 70s House" -- and commercials that didn't exactly match Live 8's Save-the-Earth message. Not long after the Black Eyed Peas crooned about global responsibility, for example, MTV aired an extra-long ad filled violent scenes from the upcoming movie ''The Island."

Perhaps most importantly, though, from a viewer's standpoint, AOL didn't bother with vapid VJ banter. The musicians did a decent job of introducing one another and offering (relatively) concise antipoverty statements. We didn't need more mediation.

But MTV and VH1 had an army of earnest twentysomethings stationed in Philadelphia and London -- the other eight cities, from their standpoint, barely existed -- clogging time with unrehearsed banter and adding precious little to the message.

''The [expletive] thing is, it doesn't have to be that way," VH1's Rachel Perry said at one point about global poverty. ''The wicked awesome thing is that you can help, just by going to" Thanks.

The VJs conducted far too many insipid fan interviews without asking the real question of the day: did people come out because they cared about malaria and debt, or did they just want to see Coldplay?

The MTV and VH1 backstage interviews, meanwhile, likewise did little to enlighten. Did we really need to know how excited Jimmy Fallon was to see Pink Floyd?

All of that chatter, tragically, took time away from the music. Much of the concert in London's Hyde Park was relegated to montages. At one point, we saw exactly 15 seconds of Geldof performing ''I Don't Like Mondays" with the band Travis. ''Living on a Prayer" was cut off before the end, and U2 was chopped into chunks.

The music networks did show some entertaining clips from the original Live Aid -- which, more than anything, showed how gracefully some rockers have aged. Madonna might have the same vocal chord challenges, but she looked much better yesterday than she did in 1985. And Sir Paul McCartney seems to have sipped from the same fountain of youth that has kept Dick Clark eerily ageless.

But you could have seen that just as easily on AOL, which, with its sharp camera angles and lack of commentary, gave viewers a much better sense of what it must have been like to see the concerts live. And many were watching. By midafternoon, AOL's programming chief Bill Wilson said 150,000 people were simultaneously viewing video streams, a record. With its blogs and constant news updates, AOL gave context to viewers who were looking for it. And it gave everyone a far better sense of the fast-paced, interconnected reality that was hard to even imagine 20 years ago. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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