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Jim McDermottDecember 12, 2005

I spent a night with friends a few weeks ago. It was an education not only in child care (never lift over your head a child who has just eaten), but also in the state of television today. In the movies these days everyone has a 32-inch flat screen television hanging in the living room, and the feng shui is amazing. But in the real world, I am discovering, basic concepts include the entertainment center and the plasma screen. My friend’s system is so big I think they had to get an extension on their house for it to fit. I am convinced that my parents’ unit is slowly driving them blind and deaf. Still, they tell me the picture is amazing.

Everything also seems to be going HD, high definition. By this we are to understand that the detail of the picture is greatly improved. I am certainly not one to quibble with quality; still, I am reminded of the multi-millionaire Nelson Rockefeller, who was once asked, “How much money is enough?” Rockefeller smiled and replied, “Just a little bit more.”

Most interesting, though, were my friends’ viewing patterns. Other than to catch sporting events, my friends never watch “live” TV. They have TiVo, which allows them to “tape” dozens of hours of television programs onto a hard drive. Consequently, when they want to relax, they watch one of their many saved programs. Such behavior renders current forms of advertising more and more obsolete; with TiVo you zip right through them. It also makes you wonder about the whole notion of “prime time programming.” “Law & Order: S.V.U.” could just as well be broadcast at 2 in the morning on Sundays as on Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

If cable created the last major revolution in home entertainment programming, the Internet is presenting the next one. Almost since its inception the Web has offered a steady stream of original programs, some of which have made major splashes in both local and broader cultures. The Internet’s dancing baby was a regular feature on “Ally McBeal.” More recently, a homemade montage of news footage from New Orleans, set to the Green Day song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and presented on the Web, was written up in The New York Times for its provocative message and wide circulation.

Today the Web has many sites, such as atomfilms.com, to which you can go to watch short films created by both amateurs and professionals. And network television is getting into the act. As of October, you can download episodes of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and certain other current ABC programs from Apple’s Music Store for only $1.99 per episode. The BBC likewise plans to offer its shows online, for an undisclosed fee. Time Warner is creating a service called In2TV that will allow individuals to watch (but not download) episodes from past classics for free. (“Chico and the Man,” anyone?) And with Sprint Nextel’s recent announcement of cellphones on which you can watch both live television and, astonishingly, programs you recorded on your TiVo at home, it won’t be long until Internet entertainment finds its way there as well.

It is all a bit dizzying, and in some ways hard to evaluate. Already we struggle to figure out how to control the abundance of pornography on the Web. How will we deal with the Internet when it functions as an international, unrestricted form of cable? Likewise, there are some pretty scary characters using the Internet to lure children and preach hate. Such issues are cause for concern and scrutiny.

The upside is access. They say God comes in many guises, and most of them are strangers. The Internet’s ongoing development as a source of entertainment probably does mean many new programs that will be either offensive or just plain bad (imagine “CSI: Grand Rapids”). But it also means that some day soon kids from Baghdad, the West Bank, Nairobi and Jersey City will all be able to tell their own stories in their own ways, and have the chance to reach large groups of people all over the world.

That’s a revolution worth experiencing.

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