Internet and TV: a marriage that never works

Column: Intel and Yahoo are the latest to try to merge the two media. Why past efforts have failed.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Cory Pforzheimer with Yahoo demonstrates TV Widgets at CES in Las Vegas.

Every year, tech geeks look forward to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas the way many children anticipate Christmas morning.

But reports from this year’s show, which ended Sunday, indicated there was little under the tree to get excited about. As one report I heard said, no one is talking about 150-inch plasma TVs. The focus was much more on what people can realistically afford in today’s bad economy.

One idea that generated a lot of buzz was Web-enabled TV. Last August, Intel and Yahoo announced “The Widget Channel.” The feature will let you use “widgets” to access Internet services, such as stock quotes and news feeds, on your home television.

To do this, however, you must own an Internet-enabled TV. So at CES, Yahoo announced that it would work with TV manufacturers, such as Toshiba and Samsung, to build sets that can access the Widget Channel. The idea was also pushed by one of the Widget Channel’s partners, MySpace, which wants to move aggressively into the TV “space.”

Well, I’m sorry, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The idea of watching the Internet on TV is like cold fusion. People will tell you that it’s a great idea and will revolutionize society as we know it. But no one has been able to do it, regardless of how many times they’ve tried.

Industry experts keep saying that in the battle for the interactive future, the TV will come out on top. Yet desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices seem to be consistently winning the battle for eyeballs.
This idea of putting the Internet on TV has been around for a while. I went back into the Monitor archives and found several articles about how the marriage of the TV and the Internet was inevitable.

For example, Monitor writer Laurent Belsie wrote in 1996 that “in the next few years, someone is going to marry the action of television with the data of the Internet in such a compelling way that consumers will flock to see it. A new medium will be born.”

The first idea was WebTV, a box that cost about $300, with a monthly subscription fee of $20. It was not intertwined with TV programming. It basically was a way to access the Web. In 1997, Microsoft bought it for about $450 million, and it went nowhere. Ultimately, its biggest market was seniors, who found it easier to read than a computer screen.

Attitude toward the Internet on the tube tempered a bit after that, but we were still hearing about “the revolution” in 2000. In another Monitor article, Harry Brunius wrote: “so far, attempts by the high-tech industry to make TV even more the center of American life – with games, online shopping, and e-mail – have been met with all the avid interest generally shown to cooking infomercials.

“That may be about to change. Later this month, America Online will launch AOLTV, its version of interactive television. With its online community of 22.5 million members and its pending merger with TimeWarner, AOL could become one of the first to bring the new era of digital television to a broad audience.”

Anyone out there who remembers AOLTV raise your hand ... anyone? That’s what I thought.
So now we have The Widget Channel. The names change, but the tune remains the same. I don’t mean to rain on Yahoo and Intel’s parade, but here is why I don’t think it will work:

•The experience of watching TV as opposed to using a laptop computer or mobile device is different. I watch TV when I want to “veg out.” It’s a passive activity, while using a computer or cellphone is more interactive. And watching TV with a keyboard in your hand just won’t fly, in my opinion. I mean, we argue now about who gets to use the remote control. Imagine if that argument expands to an interactive TV keyboard.

•TV is a “one to many” medium. When a show is on the tube, the entire family can sit and watch. But when I’m online, whether checking e-mail or reading the news, I want to do it on my own.

But some aspects of the Internet-TV marriage can work. For example, downloading movies from Netflix to your TV is brilliant, because movies are a shared viewing experience. In this case, we’re using the Internet not as an interactive medium, but as a quicker delivery mechanism than the US mail.

I can also see a widget working when you want to vote someone off “Survivor” or for your favorite singer on “American Idol.” (Then again, who at home gets to decide how to vote if one of you likes David Archuleta and the other likes David Cook?)

But don’t be surprised if, in four or five years, we’re hearing about yet another breakthrough in the struggle to get us to move from the computer to the TV. And then we can also look for news on the latest breakthrough in cold fusion.

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