washingtonpost.com
TV When -- and Where -- You Want It
New Video Technologies Free Viewers From the Couch

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Michael K. Simmons Jr.'s two jobs occupy every day of the week, straining his otherwise loving relationship with TV.

But new technology is here to help. Simmons has learned how to download basketball games from Web sites like ESPN360 and snippets of the Grammy Awards show from Yahoo. He records shows such as "Lost" and "24" to his laptop.

"I pretty much can catch anything I want," he said. Nearly 70 percent of his television viewing is not live. In fact, it is not even done with a TV. Downloadable television keeps the Fort Washington resident tuned into popular culture and water-cooler talk at work.

As media and technology industries offer new modes of watching video, consumers' relationship to television is starting to change. The box in the living room no longer dictates when and where programming is consumed. New products and faster wireless Internet speeds give customers more control, and some say they're exploiting that to make television cater to their lifestyles.

Some watch e-mailed snippets of "Saturday Night Live" on their computers on Monday morning. Instead of waiting for next week's episode, viewers are catching up on entire seasons in one sitting. Some scroll through nine innings of baseball to catch the best 15 minutes of highlights. And who needs commercials? Or program guides? Both are becoming relics of the past for a younger generation of on-demand viewers who cannot imagine being tied to a specific time or place to watch a broadcast.

For Andy Tao, portable television means more entertainment on an otherwise dull 40-minute Red Line Metro commute between Brookland and the National Institutes of Health, where he works as a cancer researcher.

"The good thing about TV shows is that it's about four hours' worth on one DVD, so it lasts me about two days during the commute," said Tao, 28, who caught up on past seasons of "West Wing" on a notepad-size DVD player he received for Christmas. He's also working his way through "Alias," "24" and "Friends," he said. "I even signed up for 'Desperate Housewives' to see what all the hype is about."

The usual keepers of television viewership data -- Arbitron Inc. and Nielsen Media Research Inc. -- have yet to collect data about this kind of alternative and online television viewership. But there is some evidence of a shift; since launching in October, Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes has sold more than 12 million downloadable videos. Cell phone television provider MobiTV Inc. said it has more than 500,000 subscribers through various carriers.

In a recent report called "The End of Television as We Know It," International Business Machines Corp.'s business consulting group predicted billions of dollars in lost advertising revenue as recorded video becomes the norm. Another study showed that interest in portable television is much more intense among the rising generation of consumers; 48 percent of those ages 13 to 17 said they are interested in watching a feature-length film on their cell phones, compared with 23 percent among those 55 and older, according to a survey by research firm Parks Associates.

In recent months, technology companies such as America Online Inc., Apple, Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, as well as production studios and networks ABC, CBS and NBC, have announced dozens of initiatives to encourage that transition to watching television on non-television devices.

The shift away from traditional TV came by accident for John Grimes, a physics professor at Towson University.

"Our VCR kicked the bucket a few years ago, and we never replaced it," said Grimes, who turned to his computer to fill the void.

Grimes used to use file-sharing software like BitTorrent, which allowed for free but illegal downloading of movies and shows. But after the Supreme Court last year affirmed digital copyright protections, more commercial sites such as Movielink and Cinemanow have emphasized legal alternatives.

Grimes now pays to download episodes of ABC's "Lost" and SciFi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica." Late last year, Grimes and his wife -- both Boston Red Sox fans -- even signed up for a $50-a-year online service from the Major League Baseball Web site to get streaming video coverage of all Sox games.

"It's surprisingly good. When it first came out, it wasn't that good, but it's finally what I call usable," said Grimes, who sometimes hooks up his laptop to his TV to watch shows on a bigger screen.

More technical improvement and a broader library of online video options are coming, analysts said.

"What you're seeing is that increasingly people want content on their own terms, and on multiple devices," meaning their laptop, desktop, cell phone, handheld device or media player, said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "There's a whole world of stuff that's emerging," he said, with better technology, more content and even homegrown content that can compete with the mainstream media outlets.

"It gives me the ability to put TV on my time frame, and not have it dictate my schedule," said Joseph LaRocca, an executive at the National Retail Federation who five months ago purchased a Slingbox, a device that allows him to record shows at home on his TiVo and then transmit them over the Internet for viewing somewhere else.

For some, skipping commercials is worth the price of buying shows online.

"That's one of the big pros -- watching it without commercial interruption," said Jason Novak, whose introduction to downloaded television came after missing an episode of "Lost," which he gladly paid $1.99 to get. Since then, Novak has found himself admiring the video quality on his friend's portable game player and watching a popular "Saturday Night Live" rap skit called "Lazy Sunday" that someone e-mailed to him.

The public's awakening to new forms of video is even prompting Hollywood to think differently about traditional production. AOL, which is trying to market its own media content, recently signed a deal with Mark Burnett Productions Inc. to produce "Gold Rush!", a reality-based, interactive show about a treasure hunt for online viewers.

"To me, the new prime time is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., because more people have access to a computer then," said Burnett, whose hit shows include "Survivor" and "The Apprentice." The transition to producing more shows for the Internet medium makes basic business sense, he said. "The younger generation is so used to on-demand, there's going to be a different way to watch things."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company