A Philadelphia nightclub party was where 28-year-old Jessica Scott made her video-dating debut.
In front of a camera at the party, sponsored by the cable company Comcast Corp., she was asked about her worst date. Her ideal date. If she had a superpower, what would it be and why?
Then Scott set up a profile on Comcast's partner in the dating service, hurrydate.com. About a week later, her profile was on television, and the e-mail started flooding in.
Scott found that watching videos of potential dates gave her a true sense of their looks and personalities.
It's not like the Internet, she said, where singles may be tempted to post photos of their younger, slimmer selves.
"You know that that video was taken pretty recently," Scott said. "You can tell right off the bat, you can tell somebody's character."
This might not be what comes to mind when you think of television programming, but it's an example of how media companies are increasingly catering to the new way Americans use their television sets.
On the most basic levels, viewers want to be able to watch their favorite programs on their own schedule, hence the popularity of TiVo and on-demand movies.
Beyond that, though, media businesses are now tailoring new content, from exercise routines to karaoke, to an on-demand audience.
On Thanksgiving, Americans ordered more than 100,000 songs from Comcast's karaoke on demand, a service that plays music while the lyrics are displayed on the TV screen so viewers can sing along. In the past year, viewers in the Maryland-Washington area have looked at more than 1.5 million singles' videos through Comcast's dating on-demand service, where short personal videos of singles are aired on television and viewers can e-mail someone they like through a partner Web site.
"We have created an on-demand culture, and the quicker and better we can feed that demand, the more popular we're going to be with our customers," said Michael Ortman, vice president of programming for Comcast.
It's a change that dates back a quarter-century, to the invention of the videocassette recorder, said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.
Before the VCR, "if you wanted to watch the Wizard of Oz with your kids and you missed it, you missed it. Until the VCR, you couldn't rent movies, you had to go to the theater," Thompson said. "The VCR really was the thing that changed everything. All of a sudden it allowed us to store television shows like we could store books."
The problem with the VCR was that most Americans never labeled their tapes, Thompson said. Even if they wanted to watch a program with the kids, they couldn't always find it.
Enter the digital video recorder. With the push of a button, viewers can easily access the programs they want to watch. Thompson said the technology has refined an entitlement Americans have felt since the VCR came into play.
The digital video recorder company TiVo saw its subscriber base nearly double to 4 million in the third quarter of last year, from 2.3 million in the third quarter of 2004. And the company is taking entertainment out of the home, offering technology that lets consumers transfer video from their DVR to their laptops.
And as Verizon Communications rolls out its new television service, FiOS TV, it's also offering karaoke on demand as well as an on-demand library of more than 1,900 programs, said Shawn Strickland, vice president of product management for FiOS TV. While the phone company was expecting less than a fifth of its new television customers to order a DVR with their service, nearly a majority of them are, Strickland said.
"That has been a surprise for us," Strickland said, "and the concept of TV on your terms really resonates with consumers: the ease of recording, the ease of using the DVR to sort through all the choices in the system and provide a more personalized viewing experience."
Experts say cable operators must offer on-demand programming to be competitive. Some types of programming, such as music videos and fitness, benefit from being liberated from a schedule, said Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst who follows television for Forrester Research in Boston.
Last week, for instance, Comcast launched exercisetv, an on-demand cable network for fitness, sports instruction and motivational programming. The station, in which the New Balance athletic footwear company and Time Warner Cable are equity partners, lets viewers watch their favorite exercise videos any time.
"If I feel like working out at 6:22 a.m. and the workout I want is the pilates workout ... that's not possible with a linear channel," Bernoff said.
On demand also gives consumers access to niche programming that might not otherwise garner enough viewers to merit a channel, Bernoff said. Viewers in the Maryland-Washington area watched 129 million on-demand programs last year through Comcast, the region's leading cable provider, compared with 73 million in 2004.