Joe Lavin

March 21, 2006

The New World of Online Television!
Or: Now There's Nothing On On Your Computer Too


Last fall, Apple introduced the Video iPod with an important announcement. Popular ABC shows "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" would be available at iTunes for $1.99 per episode. At the time, most news stories concentrated on the video iPod itself. Cranky critics wondered aloud who wanted to watch a television show on a tiny iPod screen. Would people actually pay for television programs? Were we so desperate for television that we would try to watch it anywhere, even on a noisy subway? And how soon would it take before people started offering porn for the video iPod? (Answers: Yes, evidently, and about 15 minutes.)

Of course, the real story was not the video iPod. It was that you could now purchase TV shows and watch them on your computer or iPod. Whereas previously many people had hoped to give broadcasters money to watch television but had to settle instead for downloading programs for free on illegal services like BitTorrent, now at last we could give the networks $1.99 per episode for our favorite television shows. You know, the ones that used to be free. It's just another example of corporate America coming to our rescue.

Other networks followed ABC's lead. NBC began selling "The Office," "Law and Order," and several other shows at iTunes. They also offer something called "NBC Classics," which sounds impressive until you realize that they actually consider "Knight Rider" to be one of their classics. CBS partnered with Google to sell "CSI," "NCIS," and other popular acronyms. At iTunes, Comedy Central even sells a monthly pass to "The Daily Show" for $9.99. And finally Fox recently began letting viewers buy a special $1.99 "protection" plan to ensure that episodes of "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" are never accidentally downloaded to their computers. "It sure would be a shame if your hard drive were accidentally filled up with all our reality shows," a Fox spokesperson said yesterday.

Last week, CBS went one step further by putting free video streams of all first round games of the NCAA basketball tournament online for free, thus ensuring that absolutely no work got done in offices last Thursday and Friday. Remember the halcyon days when the NCAA tournament's effect on office productivity merely meant fervent gambling and a whole bunch of people running off copies of their bracket on the office photocopier. Now, you can actually watch the games from your office computer.

"Edwards, I need that first quarter fund summary report this afternoon."

"Yeah! Three pointer, BABY! Who's winning the pool now, suckers? Oh, I'm sorry, Sir, did you say something?"

As with most online TV though, there were restrictions. In this case, if a game was being televised on your local station, you couldn’t watch it online (although there were some who used phony zip codes to get around this with some success). Restrictions like this have never made sense to me. Yes, I'm really going to choose to watch a basketball game in the corner of my monitor over a spotty Internet connection, if there's a television around.

Actually, I've never understood why television stations don't just stream all their programming online -- well, aside from the fact that it might destroy what's left of our country's office productivity? ("Let me just finish watching Jerry Springer first, and I'll get you that report right away, Sir. This guy doesn't know it yet, but his wife, girlfriend, and parole officer are about to show up!")

Still, why should the networks care whether you watch their commercials on a computer or a television screen? If occasionally they do need to restrict access to certain areas, there are ways to do that. Sure, some people will get around the restrictions, but some people will get around just about anything. Don't worry about it. These people aren't your best customers anyway.

I suspect that in the future most television stations will stream their entire schedule online. If you do want to save a copy or watch something without commercials, then you'll need to pay something. Of course, piracy will still be around. It'll always be around. The trick is to find a way to make online TV easy and convenient enough so that the lazy people are still willing to hand over their cash for it, rather than waste the effort to find something free. It shouldn't be that difficult. It's not as if television viewers have ever been accused of industriousness.


©2006 Joe Lavin

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