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Late last month the BBC announced that it would be offering up a large part of its television content free of charge on its website. And back in May, ABC announced it would stream some of its primetime shows in HD online for free. As networks begin to put more of their content online — either on their websites or through services like iTunes — both advertisers (who get yet another dimension for their messages) and viewers win. But is the future of TV-watching online? Is the box we’ve grown up with destined to become obsolete? Not just yet.

I don’t enjoy watching television online — it’s just not comfortable. Lazing on the couch with a remote control is much more enjoyable than hunching over a desk and maneuvering a mouse to make things happen. Video clips stop, connections time out, sound turns choppy and I end up turning off the computer and turning back to my trusty television, which lets me lean back comfortably and effortlessly rather than forward.

My relationship with television is different from my relationship with the Internet. While I’ll catch an occasional news clip online, I don’t cozy up for extended viewing in front of the my laptop. Perhaps it’s because psychologically I relate television to relaxation and disconnection from the world, and because my computer is often the bane of my existence, incessantly reminding me of how connected I need to be at all times — especially for work. The last thing I need is to be alerted to a work email while I’m dozing in front of a mindless episode of “Dancing with the Stars.”

I like TV as it happens. When I’m away from the U.S. I like to catch ABC World News on iTunes. But only when I’m away, because I prefer to see nightly news live rather than several hours later. The real-time factor is another reason why I prefer traditional television to online, and why for me “real” TV won’t be going away anytime soon.

The Evolution of TV Content Online

In this age of content on demand, it’s hard to even remember the days when TV programming ended at night with the national anthem, leaving us no other choice than to hit the sack. Today, we can get TV from virtually any place on the globe, any time of day or night, often for free. The temptation to watch more and more is ever present as television content becomes more accessible online and over mobile phones.

Television programming has been online in some form for years now. I remember struggling years ago with choppy CNN video streams and Real Player clips and thinking, “what’s the point?” Now, fast broadband speeds are making the video-watching experience much more palatable, and TV networks are realizing that they need to provide access to programming online, or users will upload shows to YouTube or other file-sharing sites themselves. The desire to view content on our computer screens exists, and users have filled in the gap where networks have lagged behind, sharing television content with peers even as television giants decry copyright infringement. Plus, fans of shows have built independent sites to drive even more demand for online TV content.

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I’m open to the idea of an Internet-TV convergence, and I enjoy discarding outmoded devices just like the next person. Yet somehow, I’m still not buying into it. Even after years of talk about interactive TV and the failed WebTV device, there’s still no easy way to blend the TV and Internet experience in one device. And online, there are many platform roadblocks to widespread acceptance of streaming TV. For instance, the BBC currently blocks me out from their iPlayer by requiring a Windows machine — though plans for a Mac version are reportedly in the works. This service would be a boon for us in the U.S. who are fans of the BBC’s programming but reluctant to pay for BBC America (or in my case, unhappy with what BBC America offers). Unfortunately, it is only available within the UK and doesn’t work outside of the country.

I was pretty psyched when I heard about Joost, a much-hyped program that would allow me to watch TV online seamlessly. But I never got it to work on my Macbook, so I gave up. Other users say it works smoothly with a fast connection and enough RAM, but for now I’m stuck.

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I also had a lot of hope for AppleTV. When it debuted I thought it might be a happy convergence of my two favorite machines. But like a lot of other people, I’m not convinced. I want to be able to watch things other than shows on iTunes and YouTube on TV. I want to watch any kind of TV available on the Internet on my TV set, and that’s just not possible right now.

And then there’s YouTube. It’s great for viral video and it’s the place you turn to when you need to find a clip no one else has. But given the size limit of the clips, you can’t really watch anything continuously. I hate watching Part 1 and Part 2 of something only to realize that I need to dig around the site to find Part 3, which may or may not exist.

Convergence Dreams

Despite my reservations, the general public has started to seriously dabble with TV online. A recent study conducted by Motorola found that 45% of Europeans watch at least some television online. And another study counted 81 million U.S. Internet users who watched TV online in March. While some old-timers might balk at the numbers and say it can’t be so, what is clear is that we increasingly want to view what we want when we want it rather than when networks have scheduled it for us. The popularity of digital video recorders is a testament to that.

In response to this consumer need, more and more sites and services are cropping up to help us get TV content on our computers. But currently, there is a hodgepodge of places on the Internet where we can watch television for free, from network websites to aggregators serving up TV feeds from around the world.

I’m sure a lot more people would embrace the idea of TV online if it just worked better. Right now independent websites aggregate random content, some old, some new, some live, some taped, some foreign, some local. What if someone organized this in a better way, and created Internet “networks” for all of this? If the beauty of Internet broadcasting is the ability to serve content to smaller, more specialized audiences than television, why not organize it a bit better and specialize even further? I’d watch YouTube on TV if it looked more like TV and was neatly organized into channels.

On regular cable television, the on-demand programming is at best limited and at worst pathetic. The Internet offers endless content of every sort, on demand. It would be great if the breadth and variety of what’s available online were freely available on my television screen.

But just as I don’t expect my cameraphone to take great photos, I’m not expecting my computer to work exactly like a television. Being able to fulfill the promise of an Internet-TV convergence product like Apple TV — which did not live up to its potential — shouldn’t be that hard. I’d pay good money for a product that would give me content regardless of origin — be it regular television or Internet content — through my TV without a fuss. But until that happens, I’m not throwing out the idiot box anytime soon.

What do you think? Do you like watching TV content online, and in what situations? Do you want to get online content on your TV and what is your dream for convergence of the TV and Internet? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Photo of TV and computer stirred and not shaken by jypsygen.

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