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Screen wars: stealing TV’s ‘eyeball’ share

Television, the long-dominant medium, becomes just one of many video outlets.

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The Internet is producing more and more polished original content. This summer Joss Whedon, creator of the critically acclaimed TV shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” produced “Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (drhorrible.com), an Internet-only “TV series” that’s become an online viewing phenomenon. It’s also the kind of Internet video that viewers may wish they could easily shift to their TVs so they could watch it on their sofas.

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But not everyone is convinced that Internet video and TV are about to converge. “It’s the most overrated, overhyped story in the tech world today,” says Phillip Swann, president and publisher of TVpredictions.com. “It’s simply not convenient yet.”

Mr. Swann also disputes the idea that network TV schedules are going out the window as people call up online video whenever they want it. “People like routine, they like to able to know what is going to be on at 8 o’clock,” he says.

Also standing in the way is the need for true HD-quality video to be available over the Web. “They’re a long ways from that,” Swann says.

But Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey, who declared “TV is dead” in a June white paper, says the new “video everywhere” era is just beginning to emerge. He foresees a “cocoon of video experiences that follow [people] from morning until night.” Video shipped to small devices we carry will be displayed on bigger screens that surround us, such on the table at a cafe. Portable devices will “talk with” nearby screens, such as one on the back of the airline seat in front of you, that will display your video.

By 2020, Mr. McQuivey says, video will become a kind of customized “white noise” behind users’ lives, as well as a companion “that will combine personal video, slide shows from your digital camera, music videos, and clips from favorite movies, sitcoms, and sporting events.”

While that may sound far out, just a couple of years ago users were marveling at being able to view tiny, grainy YouTube videos on their computers. Today’s online video quality already rivals that of old-fashioned analog TV. In a very short period of time, “the progress has been pretty striking,” Whitehouse says.

Although computers are rapidly becoming a mainstay of video viewing, the picture for mobile devices is less clear. According to The Nielsen Company, more than one-third of all mobile phone subscribers – some 91 million Americans – own a video-capable phone. And 6 percent of US cellphone subscribers (about 14 million) pay for a video plan.

“The jury is out on mobile, but it seems likely that some experience will emerge there,” Tulsiani says. People said consumers would never watch video on computers, but they do, he says. Now they’re saying they’ll never watch on a mobile phone. “We’ll find out if that’s true or not.”

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the video quality of Internet movies from the LG/Netflix box. The streaming video will be in standard definition.]

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