AOL pioneers brave new world of TV

In2TV to offer classic programs via Internet, on demand, free

November 15, 2005|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Welcome Back, Kotter and Wonder Woman. Perfect Strangers and Pinky and the Brain. Sure, the TV series themselves are a little dated, but they'll air in a revolutionary way this winter when America Online offers them on the Internet, on demand and for free.

For media companies, AOL's new service, In2TV, pioneers a fresh source of advertising revenue from about 100 classic programs, some of which have been shelved for years. For couch potatoes, the new service is not just an opportunity to relive the glory days of Maverick and Eight Is Enough. It also marks the latest way that television is morphing out of its traditional format to infiltrate daily life.

"Obviously, we are slouching toward a day when television will be all over the place in many different ways," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Digital technology defines the new movement in television. Digital recorders such as TiVo were last year's wave. Attention has shifted to downloading hot new programs such as Lost and Desperate Housewives onto iPods and cell phones. CBS and Comcast announced last week that starting in January, they would offer repeats of hit television episodes for 99 cents each through video-on-demand.

The In2TV format, which AOL is producing with corporate partner Warner Bros., is another concept: The shows are free, but, unlike other variations, each includes four 15-second commercials that you can't skip. If such broadband networks are widely adopted, the computer screen could rival the television as the preferred medium for sitcoms and soap operas.

Eventually, media companies will probably produce television-like programming just for alternative formats, said Ron Simon, curator of the New York branch of the Museum of Television & Radio. Already in China there are shows viewable only via cell phone.

"You'll have these postage stamp-sized televisions and then the gigantic screens you see in department stores," Simon said. "Televisions can be viewed privately or as you travel. There will be new firms springing up to create content for all these different types."

The shift away from the family room television marks a change in American domestic life, said Sheri Parks, who teaches a class on television and American culture at the University of Maryland, College Park. As the experience of television becomes more individualized through on-demand programming and alternative private and portable formats, it necessarily becomes less social.

In the mid-20th century, the tube replaced the hearth as the center of family life, she said.

"You had generations of people who had one, maybe two TVs, and everyone would gather around and watch," she said. "You had families doing something that families may not do at any other time" as they huddled in the glow of the screen. Family schedules were dictated by prime-time slots.

But digitized television can be tailored to individual timetables, so everyone can watch what they want, alone if they choose.

Also, online television shows can take harness the power of Internet features like blogs and message boards, which have taken a chunk out of traditional TV audiences lately, said Susan Barnes, a professor of communications at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

"Television has to reinvent itself to keep up with trends on the Internet," she said. "People are surfing the Web more than watching television, and the types of habits that people are developing are much more interactive."

In2TV, for instance, plans to offer games and trivia contests along with TV programs.

Yet, some experts say the new computerized viewing won't work for every show or entice all audiences. Bob Thompson predicts that news and sports programs will be most popular on small, portable computer screens. Commuters on trains may choose to watch CNN instead of reading a newspaper, and sports fans who can't get near a traditional TV can catch the game on their portable device.

But when people get home, it's unlikely they'll want to watch television on their home computers or iPods, especially when so many people have invested in widescreen, high-definition TV sets, Thompson said.

"Right now, we have overestimated how much tolerance people will have for watching this stuff on a cell phone or on a little device," he said. "These beautiful, lush programs like Lost aren't going to work on a tiny 2-inch screen."

And it's even less realistic that they'll forgo a comfy couch for a stiff-backed swivel chair for the caliber of reruns that In2TV is offering.

"I just don't think people are going to sit in front of their computer to watch television, especially not Wonder Woman," said Billy Ingram, who runs TVparty.com, a classic television Web site. "I don't see how they could suffer through half an hour of F Troop.

"I think it's a great idea and that it's really bold of AOL," he said. "But they are going to need to reach deeper in terms of content."

"If they're showing old stuff like that, they're not going to capture many viewers," said James L. Baughman, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "The bigger problem for the networks is all the stuff you can do on the [computer] besides just watch old television shows."

But, he admitted, "I'll watch Maverick."

Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl and Sun television critic David Zurawik contributed to this article.

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