By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to
updated 5/31/2006 8:43:44 PM ET 2006-06-01T00:43:44

There’s nothing like a story about television to get the email flowing, and last week’s column on how TV networks are adapting to the Internet was no exception. 

For starters, some readers told me that I was behind the times: that television has already come to the Web, big-time: 

Ray: After reading this, one has to wonder if Michael Rogers actually has an Internet connection. Everything, and I mean everything, that is available on the television networks is available for download on the Internet now, in many high-quality formats, commercial-less, and absolutely free, for those with a computer and a broadband connection. The technology and content exists today and it's not surprising that the networks are behind the curve. Hopefully, television will learn from the example of Apple's iTunes music store: make it cheap, convenient, and al a carte, and viewers will download legally.

Rogers: Uh, Ray, from the network’s point of view, that’s the problem. The column was about legal video distribution on the Web. And as for your example of iTunes: as the column pointed out, there are still far more songs — perhaps by several orders of magnitude — being downloaded illegally than legally. Illegal downloading of television content isn’t nearly at the level that music downloading was when iTunes debuted, so the networks hope they can still get ahead of the trend.

But what if they can't? The television folks have already taken note of the remarkable consumer entitlement that exists on the Web: hey, make it really easy and cheap for me or I’ll just get your programs illegally. There seems to be a sense, especially among younger consumers, that the media companies have some sort of social obligation to keep producing music and programming regardless of how much gets taken for free. Wrong: these are businesses, and if they can’t make money producing content, they’re just going to invest in something that’s more profitable. Record companies, for example, are already cutting back on their investments in new talent. And that’s why television fans should hope the networks can figure out a business model to support their productions.  Otherwise, when 2010 rolls around, the most interesting television content on the Web could be Bonanza, the Will and Grace finale and skateboarding tricks on YouTube.

A few readers thought I was just plain wrong about television on the Internet, for technical reasons:

Beau Tardy, Princeton, NJ:  TV on the Web is a non-starter. It will never develop into a mass market nor is it even really technically feasible. Even with compression at 4 to 1 (MPEG4) it still requires 6mb per second. Besides there already is a 'networked web' that carries TV, it's called cable. Pushing TV thru the Internet is like broadcasting radio over the telephone. They are incompatible mediums.

The big mistake is to think of the Web as simply another delivery system. It is not. It is a wholly realized medium of its own with its own behavior and its own appetite. Yes, there will be TV images on the web, just as there will be music and even movies. But they will be a small part of the total picture. The web has more to do with the post office and newspapers than it does with TV. Downloading TV off the Web is a novelty that will fade quickly as soon as other formats kick in.

Rogers: I received several other reproaches about the inefficiency of existing Internet technology for video distribution, and this is certainly a concern.  But lots of development money is going into various IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) delivery methods, and while many of these may not ultimately employ traditional Web browsers, they will have the key characteristics of the Internet: highly personalized and interactive content delivery.  The television industry shouldn’t spend much time worrying about whether the technology will be ready for them: the question is whether they will be ready for the technology.

I do, however, agree with Beau that there will someday be a pure or native form of Internet medium that will simultaneously combine audio, video, text, graphics and audience participation, all in some sort of seamless interface. But for years to come, we’ll also still be using the Internet to mimic conventional radio and television.

Several readers brought up an issue that I’ve only started to hear recently: all of a sudden, too much on the Internet is starting to cost money.  But I’m not surprised: I used to predict that we’d look back on the Nineties as the Golden Age of the Internet—not because everything was so good, but because everything was so free.

Kim, CT: I like the idea of TV coming to the Internet, but I don't like the idea that everything on the Web is going to cost money. Some of us already pay a high price for the use of the Internet, and yet now they are asking people to pay for watching programs that normally would have been on TV free to record. I just think this is all too much.  It seems like everywhere we go on the Internet someone wants money for something, making what we already pay for the Internet double.  When is enough enough?

Rogers: And then there were plenty of readers — both young and old — who are more than ready for television on the Web. 

Alex Puhl, Goleta, CA: I think this is a great idea! I’m an 18 year old male and I just don't watch TV anymore. There’s just too much pointless junk that we don't have control over — except for changing the channel.

Rebecca, Bellflower, CA: I wish television WOULD go to the Web. I am tired of paying for 100 stations that I don't care about and will NEVER watch, and have to pay extra for channels that I do want. I do NOT speak Spanish or Korean, I do NOT watch sports, I do NOT need TEN news channels, and I am beyond VH1 and MTV. I am tired of having things shoved down my throat and forced to pay for them.

Rogers: Rebecca may get her wish much sooner than she thinks; Congress and the FCC are seriously considering changing the cable television rules so that you can buy individual channels “ala carte.”  It is, however, a change the cable channels oppose, arguing that under those rules many smaller channels will no longer be able to survive.  The fact that the influential Christian broadcasters are against this move may be enough to stop it in the current administration.

And then finally, whenever I write about television, I receive a full complement of emails like this:

D.L. Paulshus, Pasadena, CA: Who cares whether TV moves to the Net? Whether broadcast or Netcast, there's still practically NOTHING WORTH WATCHING. We're down to only 4 hours of actual TV viewing per WEEK because the networks — including the so-called premium movie channels HBO and Showtime — have a nasty habit of cancelling their most interesting shows. We quit watching, guys. Find yourselves some other suckers.

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