Ten things you need to know about TV on demand. How the brave new world of TV is giving viewers the power
Credit: Lost: ABC/ Mario Perez

1 What’s available?

In October, ABC partnered with Apple’s iTunes and the new video iPod to provide downloads of shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost for $1.99 per episode. Within weeks, CBS announced its own deal with Comcast cable to offer select shows on demand (CSI, NCIS, Survivor, and The Amazing Race) for 99 cents a pop starting in January; and NBC struck a similar agreement with satellite company DirecTV to sell episodes of Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, among other shows, starting early next year. Then on Dec. 6, NBC announced a separate deal with iTunes to offer some of the shows DirecTV will feature, plus others such as Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Law & Order, and classics like Knight Rider. TiVo’s prepping its own bold innovation: In 2006, new software will allow viewers to use their PC to dump recorded shows onto an iPod or Sony PlayStation Portable. And in January, AOL will launch a broadband network that will stream video of 30 classic programs including Alice, Falcon Crest, and Welcome Back, Kotter, complete with devious ways to suck you in (click here to see Brad Pitt’s guest spot on Growing Pains!). That service is free to anyone — so plummeting workplace productivity is nigh.

2 Why is all of this happening now?

Network execs like to pontificate about ”unique opportunities” to ”connect with viewers.” But in reality, it all comes down to advances in technology — and fear of the second coming of Napster. With 35 million homes now using broadband, executives wanted to make their legit file sharing the norm before it’s too late. ”The music industry tried to stop [downloads],” says Michelle Hilmes, a media studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of The Television History Book. ”Now the TV industry is trying to hug it to death.” Explains Albert Cheng, exec VP of digital media for the Disney-ABC Television Group: ”[Downloading an ABC show] is $1.99 and it’s easy to do. So it’s worth it not to get thrown in jail.”

3 Okay, but how real is this ‘revolution’?

The landscape is littered with failed advances in TV viewing (remember when WebTV was the Next Big Thing?), but TV on demand is more like the onset of cable or the introduction of the VCR because it’s driven by consumer demand, not industry wizardry. After TiVo introduced its digital video recorder in 1999, scores of cable companies began offering their own DVR boxes — so more and more viewers are getting their TV á la carte. ”People are waiting for reasons to use this [technology],” says Josh Bernoff, a vice president at tech-business tracking firm Forrester Research. ”And ‘I missed CSI last night’ is as good a reason as you can get.”

4 Will this change the kinds of shows networks choose to air?

Selling eyeballs (preferably young, affluent eyeballs) to advertisers has long been the real goal of television. But if audiences are willing to pay per episode, TV becomes less about mass appeal and more about marketing directly to individuals. That gives more power to passionate, tech-savvy fan bases, a model that could favor a quirky show like the now-canceled Arrested Development over middlebrow fare. ”I’ve always wondered, How much would someone pay for an episode of Seinfeld versus a standard sitcom?” says Arrested exec producer Mitch Hurwitz. ”Will ‘appointment television’ translate into ‘pay television’? It has to a certain extent for HBO.” Then again, The WB’s critically beloved — but ultimately cancelled — Jack & Bobby became the first pilot available for legal download (via AOL) last fall. ”It got a tremendous response and broke all these records,” creator Greg Berlanti says. ”And then it aired, and it didn’t break any records.” No matter the medium, says Will & Grace cocreator David Kohan, ”you still have to tell stories. And you’ll need [actors] with giant heads so we can read their expressions on an eight-centimeter screen.”

5 Speaking of ratings — won’t those mess up?

Not in the short term, since it’ll be such a small percentage of the viewership using these alternative methods. (CSI, the current No. 1 show, gets about 28 million viewers; only an estimated 10 million homes even have DVRs.) Nielsen is just starting to measure DVR viewing, and will add on-demand rankings next year. Most executives and analysts believe new technology will actually boost Nielsen numbers by allowing fans to catch up and would-be viewers to catch on, just as TV on DVD has done. ”If I told you how great The Office was, and you went and rented it [on demand], you may be more inclined to catch it next week on NBC,” says NBC Universal Television president Jeff Zucker. Adds CBS president of entertainment Nina Tassler: ”Our focus is getting more exposure for our content. But we still believe in a traditional model of watching television.”