Couch crashers

Internet set grabs a seat in America's living room

If this was the year that Web video sites like YouTube encroached on TV programmers’ turf, 2007 may mark the year the Internet finally invades the living room.

A slew of new companies are trying to make it easier for consumers to access Internet video content on a TV. Verizon is rumored to be in discussions with YouTube to make a selection of the site’s most popular videos available on its nascent fiber-optic TV service, which reaches 100,000 homes.

Comcast recently launched a video site called Ziddio, soliciting videos from the general public, and promising to show the best submissions on a Comcast VOD channel.

And Apple is expected to begin selling a device, code-named iTV, in the first quarter of 2007, that will enable a computer to wirelessly beam video to a TV set.

Companies like Microsoft and Akimbo already offer devices that make Internet content available on TV sets, and TiVo recently announced a deal earlier to make programming from Heavy.com and IVillage available on about 500,000 of its digital video recorders. But the number of people who watch Web video television is still small.

“Right now, you have to be a little bit tech-savvy to get all that stuff to work,” says Jeff Gaspin, the exec responsible for digital content at NBC Universal Cable Entertainment. “Not a lot of people know how to do it.”

Josh Goldman, chief exec of Akimbo, which started selling its $199 device just before Thanksgiving, says it makes getting niche video content to a TV much more economical, and it can help studios leverage their programming libraries in new ways.

Discovery Networks, for instance, has thousands of hours of programming in its archives, and “we want to use these technologies to allow the audience to dig as deep as they like,” says the cabler’s Billy Campbell.

With access to a nearly infinite number of inexpensively made Internet shows, such new devices would seem to give the networks all the more reason to be afraid. But execs aren’t exactly quaking in their boots.

“If you look at the amount of money ESPN puts into covering a major sporting event, and someone who might videotape a college lacrosse game and distribute it on the Internet, there is a clear difference in production values,” says Albert Cheng, VP of digital media for the Disney-ABC Television Group.

Or as Gaspin puts it, “There are just so many silly videos you can watch.”

Instead, Goldman sees the new TV-Internet link as an entree for semi-professional content providers, like “the yoga instructor who realizes she could sell daily yoga workouts, and suddenly finds herself able to distribute real video on a real TV.”

Akimbo offers its service for $9.99 a month, but others are planning to make Internet video available for free, supported by ads or sold on a pay-per-view basis.

Providers like Verizon and TiVo hope to eventually make any online video a viewer would like to watch available in the living room.

“We’re experimenting with that now,” says TiVo co-founder Jim Barton. “You’ll see that within the next year or two.”

Mark Moore, chief exec of One True Media, talks about “fusion TV,” where viewers would have a blend of professionally produced video of a rock concert or football game with amateur footage and reactions to those same events.

“I think that new types of content will share the stage with more traditional kinds of content,” Gaspin says. “But I think the change will be slow enough that we can figure it out without it crippling us. And as long as we’re being paid by advertisers or subscribers, it’s a good thing.”