WASHINGTON—We're on the eve of a television revolution that proponents say could change how you watch your favorite shows—and who produces them. And if 500 channels overwhelmed you, brace yourself.
Media experts say television broadcast over the Internet promises a huge variety of small-audience programming that might include high school athletic contests, personalized business news and very low-budget independent films. What's more, it'll all be viewable on demand on TVs, PCs, iPods or cell phones.
"The opportunities are really endless. The ways of production, the type of content, are really all new," said Allan Hepner, a proponent of what's called Internet protocol television. Hepner is the executive director of a research center, the New Millennium Research Council, that predicts that IPTV soon will be a major competitor to broadcast and cable TV.
An estimated 49 million Americans already have the gear and broadband connections needed to receive IPTV. And 5 percent of U.S. Internet users already watch videos online daily, according to a recent survey by the trade group Online Publishers Association.
Dr. Joseph Fergus, the chief executive officer of an IPTV provider called Communication Technologies, said the transition to IPTV was already under way.
"What you have in the industry is the first stages of IPTV deployment: regurgitation of content" that already exists, he said, such as network television shows streamed online. Apple, for example, offers hit shows such as "Desperate Housewives" for download through its iTunes software for $1.99 per episode.
Another growing commercial IPTV service is MLB.com. It offers live Internet broadcasts of all Major League Baseball games for $69.95 a season, and includes a "mosaic" feature enabling viewers to watch six games of their choice simultaneously.
Companies, government agencies and individuals all could buy channels or IPTV broadcast time to air their messages, Fergus said. The House of Representatives passed a measure June 8 to allow telecom giants such as AT&T to offer television service over their Internet networks in all local markets. The Senate is considering a similar bill.
"Why would they go to Time Warner and ask for a channel?" asked Fergus, when IPTV could air material produced by anyone with a digital camcorder and video-editing software for far less. "We're talking about thousands of dollars versus millions of dollars," Fergus said.
He estimates that a programming entrepreneur could set up and air an IPTV channel for $25,000. A single hour of conventional commercial-reality television, which is relatively cheap to produce, costs $1 million or more.
Microsoft and Intel are working on software to ease the Web-to-TV interface.
AT&T plans to air Internet videos as well as movies over its new TV service. Its revenue would come mainly from view-on-demand offerings of major motion pictures, which competitors rent in downloadable form for $2.99 to $4.99. Most of the Internet's streaming video currently isn't of high enough quality to rent at those rates, however, and how its producers will make money is one of the TV revolution's uncertainties.
One model for the new technology is MariposaHD, a travel and fashion show that American expatriates produce in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It's available free online in high definition from their Web site, MariposaHD.tv.
"For the future of TV we see we are no longer limited to Fox, ABC, NBC and whatever your 60 cable channels are," said Jeff Newman, one of MariposaHD's creators. The first three half-hour episodes—produced on gear available at home electronics stores—have been downloaded more than 25,000 times from his servers and shared among users many times more.
"My train ride to work used to be spent reading The Wall Street Journal. Now I envision something where I can download a 30-minute summary of the markets and watch it on my iPod," Newman said. "The future is the ability to watch what you want, when you want to watch it."
Newman thinks shows such as his can make money by running ads and billing advertisers in proportion to the show's popularity.
"I would love to see some sort of free distribution model with a commercial tacked on at the beginning and maybe a commercial in the middle," he said.
To be sure, IPTV faces some challenges. The House's telecommunications bill would let Internet service providers charge content providers and heavy users more than they charge other customers, for example. If those fees were high, they could suppress IPTV.
It's also unclear how many viewers would pay for unconventional, user-generated channels. They've watched the five top user-generated videos on YouTube.com more than 55 million times, but they're free.
Fergus thinks that diversifying and personalizing media choices is the next big thing for consumers.
"You don't hear much about the family huddling around the TV set in the living room now," he pointed out. "This is the technology that is enabling that change."
The New Millennium Research Council report can be viewed here: http://newmillenniumresearch.org/archive/IPTV(underline)Report(underline)060706.pdf
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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