Is the Future of Television Online? Not Yet

    by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
    August 10, 2007

    i-90283f3500d77aa732aafa73d34b2ff5-TV Internet mix.jpg

    Late last month the BBC announced that it would be offering up a large part of its television content free of charge on its website. And back in May, ABC announced it would stream some of its primetime shows in HD online for free. As networks begin to put more of their content online — either on their websites or through services like iTunes — both advertisers (who get yet another dimension for their messages) and viewers win. But is the future of TV-watching online? Is the box we’ve grown up with destined to become obsolete? Not just yet.

    I don’t enjoy watching television online — it’s just not comfortable. Lazing on the couch with a remote control is much more enjoyable than hunching over a desk and maneuvering a mouse to make things happen. Video clips stop, connections time out, sound turns choppy and I end up turning off the computer and turning back to my trusty television, which lets me lean back comfortably and effortlessly rather than forward.


    My relationship with television is different from my relationship with the Internet. While I’ll catch an occasional news clip online, I don’t cozy up for extended viewing in front of the my laptop. Perhaps it’s because psychologically I relate television to relaxation and disconnection from the world, and because my computer is often the bane of my existence, incessantly reminding me of how connected I need to be at all times — especially for work. The last thing I need is to be alerted to a work email while I’m dozing in front of a mindless episode of “Dancing with the Stars.”

    I like TV as it happens. When I’m away from the U.S. I like to catch ABC World News on iTunes. But only when I’m away, because I prefer to see nightly news live rather than several hours later. The real-time factor is another reason why I prefer traditional television to online, and why for me “real” TV won’t be going away anytime soon.

    The Evolution of TV Content Online

    In this age of content on demand, it’s hard to even remember the days when TV programming ended at night with the national anthem, leaving us no other choice than to hit the sack. Today, we can get TV from virtually any place on the globe, any time of day or night, often for free. The temptation to watch more and more is ever present as television content becomes more accessible online and over mobile phones.


    Television programming has been online in some form for years now. I remember struggling years ago with choppy CNN video streams and Real Player clips and thinking, “what’s the point?” Now, fast broadband speeds are making the video-watching experience much more palatable, and TV networks are realizing that they need to provide access to programming online, or users will upload shows to YouTube or other file-sharing sites themselves. The desire to view content on our computer screens exists, and users have filled in the gap where networks have lagged behind, sharing television content with peers even as television giants decry copyright infringement. Plus, fans of shows have built independent sites to drive even more demand for online TV content.

    i-bb1b2adb709192b21ab21cda1abe05e2-BBC iPlayer logo.gif

    I’m open to the idea of an Internet-TV convergence, and I enjoy discarding outmoded devices just like the next person. Yet somehow, I’m still not buying into it. Even after years of talk about interactive TV and the failed WebTV device, there’s still no easy way to blend the TV and Internet experience in one device. And online, there are many platform roadblocks to widespread acceptance of streaming TV. For instance, the BBC currently blocks me out from their iPlayer by requiring a Windows machine — though plans for a Mac version are reportedly in the works. This service would be a boon for us in the U.S. who are fans of the BBC’s programming but reluctant to pay for BBC America (or in my case, unhappy with what BBC America offers). Unfortunately, it is only available within the UK and doesn’t work outside of the country.

    I was pretty psyched when I heard about Joost, a much-hyped program that would allow me to watch TV online seamlessly. But I never got it to work on my Macbook, so I gave up. Other users say it works smoothly with a fast connection and enough RAM, but for now I’m stuck.


    I also had a lot of hope for AppleTV. When it debuted I thought it might be a happy convergence of my two favorite machines. But like a lot of other people, I’m not convinced. I want to be able to watch things other than shows on iTunes and YouTube on TV. I want to watch any kind of TV available on the Internet on my TV set, and that’s just not possible right now.

    And then there’s YouTube. It’s great for viral video and it’s the place you turn to when you need to find a clip no one else has. But given the size limit of the clips, you can’t really watch anything continuously. I hate watching Part 1 and Part 2 of something only to realize that I need to dig around the site to find Part 3, which may or may not exist.

    Convergence Dreams

    Despite my reservations, the general public has started to seriously dabble with TV online. A recent study conducted by Motorola found that 45% of Europeans watch at least some television online. And another study counted 81 million U.S. Internet users who watched TV online in March. While some old-timers might balk at the numbers and say it can’t be so, what is clear is that we increasingly want to view what we want when we want it rather than when networks have scheduled it for us. The popularity of digital video recorders is a testament to that.

    In response to this consumer need, more and more sites and services are cropping up to help us get TV content on our computers. But currently, there is a hodgepodge of places on the Internet where we can watch television for free, from network websites to aggregators serving up TV feeds from around the world.

    I’m sure a lot more people would embrace the idea of TV online if it just worked better. Right now independent websites aggregate random content, some old, some new, some live, some taped, some foreign, some local. What if someone organized this in a better way, and created Internet “networks” for all of this? If the beauty of Internet broadcasting is the ability to serve content to smaller, more specialized audiences than television, why not organize it a bit better and specialize even further? I’d watch YouTube on TV if it looked more like TV and was neatly organized into channels.

    On regular cable television, the on-demand programming is at best limited and at worst pathetic. The Internet offers endless content of every sort, on demand. It would be great if the breadth and variety of what’s available online were freely available on my television screen.

    But just as I don’t expect my cameraphone to take great photos, I’m not expecting my computer to work exactly like a television. Being able to fulfill the promise of an Internet-TV convergence product like Apple TV — which did not live up to its potential — shouldn’t be that hard. I’d pay good money for a product that would give me content regardless of origin — be it regular television or Internet content — through my TV without a fuss. But until that happens, I’m not throwing out the idiot box anytime soon.

    What do you think? Do you like watching TV content online, and in what situations? Do you want to get online content on your TV and what is your dream for convergence of the TV and Internet? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

    Photo of TV and computer stirred and not shaken by jypsygen.

    Tagged: bbc copyright law tv
    • I consume a lot of vlogs now. Sometimes I watch them on my MacBook, but mostly I get them as mobile content for my travels (watch on my iPod). I also watch them sometimes as a substitute for reading at night before I go to bed.

      I have downloaded a couple of TV shows from iTunes and watched them on my iPod while traveling. An enjoyable experience.

      The technology that makes convergence work will only get better. Eventually, it will be possible to watch any show you want via IP. And you’ll be able to watch it on your TV, your computer or your mobile device. For those of us who adapt to it, shift among devices and watching different shows in different situations will just seem natural.

    • Luis Parenthesis

      At the rate technology and the way we communicate is evolving, I’ve become reluctant to invest in any sort of device that’s supposed to “enhance my TV viewing experience”. I’d rather plug my laptop into a TV. Thanks to the computer, I have all the control I need over the set of features that I care for, the storage devices that I own, the codecs that must be upgraded once in a while… I can also watch the content I want to watch and get it the way which I choose to. I can benefit from online content and applications, all without being bound to a single box or vendor. By running my TV on software, my hardware will last longer, and perhaps even my content too…

      Of course, this is a clunky way to do things: cables to plug and unplug everytime, software to setup, applications to browse through… If watching TV is supposed to be a debilitating experience, it really should start with a dumb user interface, shouldn’t it? This clearly isn’t the case with my laptop.

      I’m still waiting for that cheap HTPC/Media Center Box that will combine my Video watching and management needs along with the experimental power of user-contributed software. By freeing television from the limitation of its setup boxes, it might just grow the way the Internet has grown over the last 15 years. Imagine such a playground and you may well get a peek at the various roles television will play in the next decades…

    • The future of television is most definitely online, but the backside of the user remains safely within the domain of one’s couch.

      Ultimately end users don’t care how the TV gets to the box in front of their couch. Whether it is by satellite, by legacy cable, or by IP, it makes no difference to them. All it needs to be is reasonably priced and of reasonable quality.

      IPTV to the end customer means the plug into the back of their cable TV set top box is now a different shape, and this can be very underwhelming for most people.

      But for the ISP industry, the fact that they can start offering a service previously offered only via single purpose cable systems means they can poach a customer from someone they have never competed with before. For the end user, it means more choice, at cheaper prices.

    • I’m from the team at LocateTV, a search engine for film and TV content on TV, online and on DVD (both US and UK)that’s just entered private beta.

      Many of the comments on this seem to reflect my own view that there are still a lot of basic needs underpinning this market, which in some ways become more important the more crowded it becomes: simplicity, clarity, sorting through the dross to get what you want easily – regardless of all the exciting ‘Web 2.0’ hype and features.

      That’s the basis from which we developed the site, trying to imagine it as ‘the Google of film and TV’ – letting users know when things are on, without lots of bells, whistles, gossip and confusion. Our feeling is there’s so much out there… and it’s often such a frustrating experience actually finding out where and when to watch it.

      Once you’ve found the content, booking to PVR is one of our planned future developments but dialogues like these are great as we’re trying to get a sense of what would really be a priority for users, how many neat add-ons and customisations they want or if they would want the search facility to be the single, clear focus… any thoughts gratefully received!

    • nico.


      Most issues dealt with in your article and in the comments deal with technical aspects of the “TV on the web” issue. It’s very likely that in a few years video content will have improved in quality and that some kind of Bluetooth will bring it to your LCD screen right in front of your couch.

      A major overlooked issue in my opinion is that TV is also a social phenomenon, just like any broadcast media. Its added value rest on the feeling of being part of a community when millions of viewers watch the same program at the same time.

      YouTube and the like fail to convey this sense of belonging. Personalized content is only one part of the media market. Broadcast media is a product in itself, for which there will still be a market – regardless of the means of diffusion.

    • Hi Nico,

      I totally agree with your comment. Even in the case of viral videos with an extremely high number of views or a video podcast with a large audience, you do not get the same sense of “belonging” as with broadcast television. I also think that with the dawn of cable television we lost a lot of that. With more choices, it’s less likely that everyone around the water cooler in the morning was gathered around the TV last night with the family, watching one of the three network’s offerings. The reality is that as technology changes, more choices are introduced and the way we watch television collectively — and what TV means to us — changes as well.

    • Thinking back around this question, I don’t believe we can rightly think of the future of TV by trying to envision what TV will be like in a few years. This is backwards thinking. Television as it used to be was a collection of various contingencies : rarity of channels, disconnected audiences, otherwise slow and difficult access to information, etc. Following the changes of the last two decades, there might not even be a next television!

      Another way to put it would be to ask : what do we mean exactly by television? Is it a book with sounds and image? A portal for telepresence? A medium to deliver content? An opportunity to sell subscriptions advertizing? A diversion to lose oneself into? A link to feel the pulse of the world and catch its rythm? Or is it a bent bent mirror to catch its reflection? An instrument to widely diffuse experiences and stories which we ought to laugh at or worry about? What is television? What are we trying to get back from it? Do we really expect to make use of the same TV on our phones and in our living rooms? What would we really rather use these tech tools for, anyway? And, mostly, in what context?

      In my view, the new media offers limitless opportunities to specialize most of what we used to do through television : watch our favorite shows at will, be informed by the minute, get the local weather on demand, feel what’s going on around what we care about, etc. We might think we’re losing the common ground of watching the same shows all at the same time, but we still recognize that same Tron guy from the Internet. If you don’t, then you will, ’cause you just have to look it up on Google.

      Of course, contrary to television, you’ll get it from the net only if you ask for it.

    • nico.

      Hi Jennifer,

      As you wrote, the decline of mass/broadcast media probably started with cable TV. The increasing fragmentation of the media landscape seems to be the new topic of choice these days in the blogosphere, from Oslo to New York. In his post, Jeff Jarvis interestingly remarks that local TV still enjoys very high ratings. Which fits into your analysis, since the city/county is probably the community of the mass media era that will last longest.

      What about writing a post on that, bringing in your experience on the Latino market?


      Television, as I understand it, represents a continuous flow of streaming, non-interactive, broadcast video content. As of today and as Jennifer wrote, it’s the only media that lets you kill time in a couch, alone or with friends, without any kind of preparation (like choosing a DVD).

      As soon as an IP-based media can fulfill this mission in a better way, TV as we know it will, as you said, disappear.

    • In addition, according to the study, video-over-the-Internet now clearly represents a significant threat to traditional TV viewing:

      * 69% of Boomers say they’ve watched video content on their computer over the past 90 days
      * 48% of respondents say they’d be willing to pay a monthly fee for a Video-over-the-Internet subscription if it provided the same programming currently available on their TV service
      * 79% watch YouTube.com as the leading online website Boomers use to watch video
      * 39% TV Network Websites
      * 16% Hulu.com
      * 11% iTunes

      While Boomers clearly want to see fewer ads than they do with conventional broadcasting, 68% say they are willing to view at least some ads online.

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