Almost Ready For Prime Time

Net TV is getting there. Here's what could make it really take off


TV has been waiting for its big moment on the Internet since the days of fuzzy videos the size of postage stamps streamed over dial-up connections. Now network connections are fast enough to deliver video of reasonable quality, and studios are releasing more content despite their continuing dread about piracy. The result: Real TV content is coming to the Net.

Mind you, most of the TV programming available for download or streaming is no threat to HBO (TWX ) or even FX (NWS ). Disney (DIS ) announced on Apr. 10 that it would make popular ABC shows, including Lost and Desperate Housewives, available free on the Web, but they will be offered in relatively low-resolution streaming form. And when CBS (CBS ) streamed games from the recent NCAA men's basketball tournament, the results weren't ideal: The screen had a distressing tendency to go blank at critical moments. The rest of Web video content, both free and paid, comprises an assortment of programming targeted at niche audiences, such as sailing fans, and old network shows, mainly programs that aren't memorable enough to be candidates for syndication.

The most interesting new venture is AOL's (TWX ) In2TV (, which offers free programming made up of old shows with up-to-date ads, from sitcoms such as F Troop and Alice to dramas such as Maverick and Spenser: For Hire. Episodes are streamed at up to 700 kilobits per second, which produces a slightly fuzzy full-screen picture. Most programs are also available as downloads at effectively full broadcast quality. In2TV requires the latest Windows Media Player software, so it only works on PCs.

THE NEW GOOGLE (GOOG ) VIDEO STORE sells a variety of commercial TV content along with a mishmash of amateur video and assorted goodies found on the Web. Unfortunately, Google seems to think that since its interface is ideal for Web searches, it must be fine for everything else. The site is a pain to navigate, and the offerings are all over the map, with everything from current shows such as CSI to classics like I Love Lucy, all for $1.99 an episode.

Even some high-definition TV is starting to make it onto the Net. Internet video distributor Akimbo has struck a deal with cable and satellite channel HDNet to provide high-definition downloads to Windows XP Media Center PCs. The initial HDNet offerings consist mainly of Bikini Destinations, which is what you'd expect, but with gorgeous image quality. You pay for that. The shows cost $8 apiece, in addition to the $10-a-month Akimbo subscription. Akimbo aims to provide more substantial fare soon.

My guess is that both the variety of shows on the Net and the quality of most of the video are going to improve as studios grow more comfortable with online distribution. Still, two other things must happen for the online TV experience to appeal to more than just early adopters. First, we need something like the onscreen guides provided by cable and satellite systems. Right now you have to check fragmented sources of Internet TV, such as iTunes Music Store (AAPL ), Google Video, and In2TV, one by one and learn each of their different interfaces. Second, viewers want to watch TV content, whether it comes from cable, satellite, or the Internet, on a TV set, not a PC.

Apple's newest Mac mini and some Media Center PCs can be connected easily to a TV or home theater, and their Front Row and Media Center software is designed to be used with a remote from across the room. But most of the Internet video offerings don't make use of this software. What's really needed: much simpler ways to find online content and cheap, easy-to-use appliances that let you download and display those shows on a TV.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.