Tuesday, March 11, 2008

TV: coming to a monitor near you

Almost exactly ten years ago, The Onion ran a story about a $5,000 computer system designed to let users to watch TV in real time:

"Imagine watching TV at the click of a mouse, instead of a remote control," Compaq director of product development Bill Welborne said. "With the Compaq Presario 6000 and a few reasonably priced add-ons, you'll never have to watch TV on a television again."

According to Welborne, for a $49 monthly fee, owners of the Presario 6000 will be able to access network websites, where 300MB ".vid files" will be available for download. The downloaded files can then be conveniently viewed on the Presario 6000 using a special TV-dedicated version of Netscape Communicator 4.0, priced at just $89.95.

A sound card enabling users to enjoy the sound that accompanies the downloaded TV images is also available for $349.

"Pictures, sound—this is the promise of the Multimedia Age realized," Welborne said.

The Onion, of course, was being wacky. Wouldn't it be ironic if TV viewers were to spend five grand to access shows they already could get for free?

Well, what's worse? That, or consumers spending $5,000 on a 54" HDTV, only to instead watch their favorite shows on a 17" computer monitor?

According to a story in yesterday's New York Times, the latter scenario is becoming more and more common, as viewers are spending more of their time watching TV programs via the web. And they're making the switch at a pace much faster than expected:

“It has become a mainstream behavior in an extraordinarily quick time,” said Alan Wurtzel, the head of research for NBC, which is owned by General Electric and Vivendi. “It isn’t just the province of college students or generation Y-ers. It spans all ages.”

A study in October by Nielsen Media Research found that one in four Internet users had streamed full-length television episodes online in the last three months, including 39 percent of people ages 18 to 34 and, more surprisingly, 23 percent of those 35 to 54.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is a great cultural shift of how this country watches television,” said Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy,” a Fox animated comedy that ranks among the most popular online shows. “Forty years ago, new technology changed what people watched on TV as it migrated to color. Now new technology is changing where people watch TV, literally omitting the actual television set.”

This trend presents new challenges to advertisers, since it gives viewers yet another reason to turn off the TV--even if they do so to watch even more TV. However, TV viewing on the web will only become more popular as more consumers choose to watch shows on their own schedule, with fewer (or no) commercial interruptions, and as new services like Hulu become more common. The only thing viewers are giving up is that huge screen. But for about $5,000, they can probably find a monitor that will give them an experience that's almost as good as watching their HDTV.

There's gotta be another Onion parody in there somewhere.

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