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Web TV is Here

The ultimate couch-potato dream is becoming reality as the Internet delivers more and more programming to your television—and the possibilities are endless
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

Just last week, a TV-reception snafu denied my wife and me our weekly jolt of "Heroes" on NBC. If you're a fellow addict, you know that missing one episode is a big deal—it's a continuing drama that builds an ongoing story from week to week. How did I feed my habit? Simple—I visited the NBC Web site using a computer hooked up to our living room plasma set. With just a few mouse clicks, we were watching the complete episode, at less-than-broadcast quality but still acceptably sharp, even on a 50-inch screen. And it was all free of charge and perfectly legal. • In another scenario, my daughter and her friends recently discovered "Doctor Who," the long-running British sci-fi series (they think David Tennant, the 11th actor to play the doctor, is a hunk). I felt duty-bound to introduce her to the finest Doctor Who of all, Tom Baker (1974—1981). How to pull off this time-traveling feat?

Using an Internet-connected box from a company called Akimbo, I downloaded a classic episode and watched it with her.

Finally, consider my recent flight preparations for a New York to Las Vegas trip. Because the ultraportable laptop I carry weighs in at two and a half pounds by forgoing a built-in disk drive, I couldn't use it for DVD watching. Instead, I visited and found a downloadable version of An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore enviro-documentary, for just $1.99. Roughly an hour later I had a copy on my hard drive, ready for viewing in flight or in terminal, if the delays became interminable.

For those of us old enough to remember having to actually stand up to manually switch between a handful of broadcast TV stations, this new technology is nothing short of miraculous. It's even a startling concept for younger viewers who were weaned on the promise of a televisual cornucopia available via cable and satellite service, only to find, as Bruce Springsteen lamented, "we switched round and round til half-past dawn, there was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on." Despite the sheer volume of programming, the number of shows worth watching seemed meager once you eliminated the movies you wouldn't watch on a bet, the hyperventilating political pundits, the eye-glazing documentaries, the half a dozen home shopping channels and the Bolivian Pro-Am Mule Wrestling Finals on ESPN 12.

But with the help of the Internet, that is all changing. Now that over three-quarters of Internet-connected homes enjoy speedy connections, what was once the interesting if impractical experiment of delivering video via slow dial-up connections is now becoming broadband reality. Consider these important trends:

First, Internet-delivered TV isn't just for watching on your computer monitor anymore. Online TV has broken free of the home-office shackles and moved into the living room. You can even keep your tush on the couch and control the action with a wireless remote control, by connecting a computer to a big-screen set and buying a special-purpose set-top box designed to display Internet-based content on a TV. Even Internet-connected video-game consoles can now deliver downloaded video to the living room.

Second, the price is right—for the most part. Some movie download options are still questionable value propositions, as we'll see, but plenty of high-quality video comes either free or at minimal expense.

Third, a tremendous variety of video content is available online. Everything from feature films and current primetime network fare to video golf lessons, old TV episodes and live international news reports—far more variety than even the most expansive cable or satellite system could hope to provide—resides on the Internet. And with all due respect to the billions-worthy achievements of YouTube and other purveyors of so-called "user-generated content," we're talking about professionally produced, reasonably mainstream programs, available legally, virus-free and at full-screen-viewing quality, rather than a pixelated image in a window on your computer screen.

Of course, finding Internet-based video treasures isn't as easy as clicking through the program listing on your cable or satellite TV service. The good stuff is scattered across different Web sites, services and even devices. But if it saves you from even one more hour of watching glucose fiends compete to build the winning Elvis-themed cake on Food Network, I say it's worth the effort.

Making the PC-to-TV Connection

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