On-demand vintage TV debuts on desktop



Boss, I want to make one thing clear this week. I spent a lot of time researching this column.

It took dedication to sit in front of this computer, studying those reruns of Maverick and Wonder Woman and Welcome Back Kotter and F Troop and Kung Fu and La Femme Nikita. Not to mention all those cartoons.

It certainly wasn't easy to explain to people who passed by. But if you're going to report on the battle of paradigm shifts in the age of digital convergence - or whatever you want to call it - you have to get out in front of the curve.

And that's where In2TV is for the moment. This alliance between America Online and Warner Brothers opened its virtual doors this week with what it calls the first Internet TV network. Actually, it's more like a cable channel with on-demand access to its shows - which is not a bad thing to be. You can check it out at www.aol.com/in2tv.

As you watch, remember that network broadcasters, cable operators and TV producers are scrambling to move traditional television fare onto the Internet, which finally has enough broadband customers to make it an alternative distribution medium. Their problem is that nobody knows exactly how it should work, financially or artistically.

On the paid end, millions of viewers are downloading episodes of Desperate Housewives and other current shows into their iPods for $1.99 a pop. On the free end, NCAAsports.com is offering live Web casts of all 56 games from the first three rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament.

In2TV takes all of this experimentation a step further with a site for viewers who want to watch vintage television on the desktop. The kids will love it, and it does have a certain addictive quality for adults. In fact, by next week, I predict, In2TV will be the bane of office productivity across the country.

What does it offer? For starters, some 300 full episodes of shows from the Warner Brothers TV library, all available on demand.

As time goes by, In2TV will add more titles, from Warner and possibly other studios, until the total is in the "thousands," AOL says.

The service is free, or rather paid for by advertisers in the form of banner ads, plus up to two minutes of commercials per half-hour. Compared with eight or nine minutes of advertising per half-hour on standard TV, that's virtually commercial-free. It's too early to say how this model will work financially, but at this point the commercials aren't intrusive enough to be a turnoff.

To watch, you'll need a broadband connection (cable or DSL) and up-to-date Windows XP software - including Windows Media Player 10 and the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Netscape or Mozilla Firefox. Media Player 10 supports the Microsoft copy protection scheme that keeps viewers from recording and storing the content. For the time being, this is strictly a streaming video service, but AOL says it eventually plans to add $1.99 downloads.

Many Windows XP users are still using Media Player 9. If you are, you can download the newer version at www.microsoft.com/ windows/windowsmedia/mp10/.

Because In2TV uses Microsoft's proprietary video format, Mac owners are out in the cold at this point - and will probably stay there unless Apple and Microsoft resolve their duel over incompatible copy protection formats.

Once you have the right software, just surf to In2TV. There, on a flashy, cluttered and noisy home page, you can select from a menu of six channels, including LOL (Laughing Out Loud), Drama, Rush TV (Action), Vintage TV, Heroes & Horror, ToonTopia, and StarPlay.

This last is a sampling of shows featuring big names when they were still no-names, including a young Jay Leno as an obnoxious biker in an episode of Alice. The role proves how smart he was to switch to stand-up comedy.

In2TV has a variety of additional goodies, including fan talk, entertainment news, karaoke, quizzes, trailers, previews and similar fare. But you can find those on dozens of sites. What makes In2TV special is the content.

From a technical standpoint, the "broadcasts" were very good at best and passable at worst on several computers I tried at home (Comcast cable) or over our network at the office.

In2TV offers a choice of viewing formats. The first is in a Media Player window-within-a-browser that occupies about an eighth of the total screen. At that size, the picture was sharp and the streaming relatively smooth, although the audio and video occasionally got out of sync.

But the image was too small for anything but desktop viewing - and even that was a bit of a strain for these aging eyes. So I switched to full screen mode, which filled up the monitor, but the trade-off was a highly pixellated image.

It's OK for dorm room viewing on a PC screen, but if you have a computer with a TV output, I don't know if you'll really be happy with the result on a bigger, standard television screen.

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