Big media vs. Internet video tsunami: Sink or swim

We want to watch video sites like Hulu on our TVs. But the corporations that own the shows that go on that and other video websites want to deliver those programs via a different business model: advertising-based broadcast TV, and ad- and subscription-supported cable TV. The result? A clash of technologies where Big Media struggles to protect an old-fashioned business model by holding back the tide of new technology.

In the middle are we, the humble TV watchers. How much longer can this Internet video tsunami be held at bay? Why is there resistance to providing shows over the Internet, instead of broadcast or cable? And why is it so hard to cross that divide between old-fashioned TV and newfangled Internet TV? Find out on the next page.

Techno-Sabotage

This great divide between TV and Internet video is not a shortcoming of technology — it's like that on purpose. That's because the owners of the content you watch are trying to keep their Internet-streamed shows separate from the sacred living room, where most of their profits are made. They want to control how their content is viewed. They want their valuable ads to play unfettered, and they want to prevent you from skipping them.

Don't look for help from the current crop of connected digital video devices (formerly called set-top boxes, but hey, there's no set-top on which to place them anymore, so it's a dumb name that should die). Unless the makers of a product such as the Roku digital video player could make a deal with Hulu (and they didn't, but not for lack of trying), you won't see those shows on the Roku box. So you're stuck watching Hulu on your computer.

While arguably one of the best online video aggregators, Hulu's not the only game in town — there are other services to choose from. We're already seeing some movement in this easily-accessible video content arena — with expensive for-pay choices from Apple, Amazon and a few others, and now YouTube is rumored to be talking with Big Media about charging for streaming TV shows. But will the price be right?

Say You Want a Revolution?

So far, this scheme of video segregation is almost working for the content creators. But wait a second. Why did the makers of these video boxes even need to make deals with sites such as Hulu? Wouldn't it be easy just to install a web browser on those boxes, letting you navigate to any website by typing a URL into an on-board browser using a cellphone-like remote control with a slide-out keyboard? Yes, but even if those box makers did that, it wouldn't be as easy for viewers as simply locating the Hulu logo and pressing one button. Part of the problem is, users are so accustomed to the no-brainer TV-watching routine, they resist anything more complicated than pushing one button to change the channels.

Not for long. Slowly but surely, those unreasonable fears of using anything but a traditional remote control communicating with a cable box in the living room are melting away. Home theater PCs are getting to be smaller, faster, quieter, and cheaper. They're decked out with graphics processors such as the NVIDIA Ion, capable of playing 1080p video that looks as good as a Blu-ray disc. You can get one of those mini-PCs for $229. The software is ready for prime time, too — Windows Media Center's interface is lauded by its devotees as superior to even the fabled TiVo interface. The only reason PCs haven't taken over all the media duties in the living room is because of consumer fear and ignorance.

Big broadcasters and media are comforted by this fear, as they wallow in the old-style "walled garden" syndrome as long as they can. In their little Garden of Eden, they completely control the content, sell advertising around every program, and charge subscription fees to cable system operators, and indirectly, to consumers. That business model sounds a lot like the newspaper and magazine industry, and we all know how well that's working these days. The home theater PC is the way to break out of that walled garden, giving you, the viewer, access to all manner of content, both legal and illegal.

Internet Underbelly

Aha! That's where the problem lies: Big broadcasters don't want you getting too close to that steady stream of pirated content that lurks in the underbelly of the Internet. That's where you can grab most movies in 1080p (many before they're released on Blu-ray), and any music or multimedia content, including almost all HDTV broadcasts, all with their advertising stripped away. For free.

Copyright-infringing behavior will flourish unless big media steps in with an easy-to-use content stream on the Internet. The way to win this battle is not to try to hold back that tsunami of technology. It's up to big media to fight back by creating an environment where watching its content is easier and more dependable than stealing it. It's either that, or end up jumping the shark like the music recording industry with its unsuccessful strong-arm tactics, or worse, sinking like newspapers and magazines.

Meanwhile, we humble media consumers can sidestep this mess with a new home theater PC (HTPC) that's as cheap as a good Blu-ray player, navigating its familiar computer interface with the best remote control system ever invented: a wireless mouse and keyboard.