Online video bonus for TV audience?

Viewers able to watch 'a la carte' at computer

TV networks often sound positively giddy when detailing their online efforts, a tone partly responsible for the talent guilds’ conviction that a windfall is coming from work watched via the Web.

Still, just how much of burgeoning online viewing is additive — and thus actually contributes to the bottom line — as opposed to subtractive, letting viewers feel they can pass on programs and catch the best bits at their leisure?

If the ability to watch not what’s on but the best parts of what was on is all good for consumers, it’s not necessarily so great for networks, at least if they want to get paid. Yet television is increasingly accommodating these have-it-your-way tendencies, dicing itself (or letting third parties like YouTube do so) into quickly digestible snippets.

This is hardly an academic question, inasmuch as the music and newspaper industries face broken business models, wondering where their revenues went. TV is a different medium, but the emphasis on driving eyeballs to the Web — or at least not getting left behind during the stampede — makes it easier to skip the banquet and order a la carte off the computer.

These forces have left networks looking and behaving a touch schizophrenically. “Watch us now,” they seem to be saying, “but hey, no problem, you can see it all later if you don’t.”

As part of these mixed signals, ABC is steering TV critics to screen new programs online — saving a few bucks distributing DVDs, no doubt, but also compelling old farts who watch TV for a living to bypass that high-definition set in the living room and sample their wares on a 12- or 15-inch monitor.

OK, so “The View” looks just as good (or bad) that way, but what’s next? “The Ten Commandments” squeezed onto your iPod? Shrinking “Samantha Who?” until it’s “Samantha Hears a Who?”

Many websites already mirror the role that the Drudge Report or Huffington Post perform in finding interesting articles — functioning as aggregators that sift through the great haze of TV and pick out the choicest bites.

The net effect, however, is diminished incentive to watch now. MSNBC, for example, teased a Hillary Clinton interview on the “NBC Nightly News,” adding that the exclusive chat would be available online — eliminating any urgency about checking out “Nightly” if that was the motivation. Catering to tech-savvy geeks, Sci Fi Channel posted the eagerly awaited “Battlestar Galactica” new-season launch online 12 hours before its telecast.

At a recent industry forum, entertainment lawyer and big-picture thinker Ken Ziffren acknowledged that television is “at a transition state,” and in terms of Web viewing and revenue reaching critical mass, “It’s trending correctly, but it’s not there yet.” Ziffren did argue that unlike newspapers, online video appears to be mostly a bonus as opposed to cannibalizing the TV audience.

It’s a reassuring thought but an inconclusive one, depending on how many are content to skip fare they might feel otherwise obligated to watch, knowing there’s a second chance at TV’s condensed highlights and lowlights online.

As a case in point, I tried sitting through “Saturday Night Live” a few weeks ago and found the experience tedious — having been spoiled by the freedom to watch the few talked-about sketches regarding Democratic candidates Clinton and Barack Obama online, boiling a 90-minute program down to its best six or seven minutes.

This is especially true for sketch comedy and cable news, where various websites helpfully bookmark the best gags and jaw-dropping inanity. Just last week brought clips of howlers featuring MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and CNN’s Lou Dobbs — magic moments I surely would have missed.

To be fair, plenty of Web viewing is clearly additive, such as CBS’ streaming of the NCAA basketball tournament, presented complete with a “boss button” (a pop-up spread sheet to obscure slacking off) to facilitate tune-in at work.

The web’s perceived promotional value relies on people being exposed to shows they wouldn’t see, then seeking them out on TV or DVD. Those benefits are more nebulous when people use its convenience as a backstop to bypass traditional viewing, and nobody yet knows how that balance will shake out.

Until we do, stay tuned … if not to the TV, then to the computer.

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