Watching TV, on computer


As a glimpse into the future, the ABC Web site's new offering of fresh TV episodes, free of charge, is both tantalizing and maddening.

It's tantalizing because it's high-level television, plus Commander in Chief, without the bother of television.

It's maddening because's execution of the concept isn't nearly so sparkly and high-end as it first appears. The most pressing issue: The episodes, in my trial Monday, the experiment's first day, loaded slowly or not at all and could not be induced to play all the way through.

The same was true for other users at the Tribune, but ABC said this was likely an issue caused by corporate security firewalls designed to protect the computer network. All the initial reports of problems came from corporate environments, the network said, or from people running older, slower computers.

For Commander in Chief, of course, a limited play is a bonus: A quarter-hour is sufficient to answer the question of what The West Wing would be like if it were written in crayon. But for Lost, say, even last week's highlight episode was compelling enough to keep me on the edge of my ergonomic task chair.

ABC is conducting a two-month trial offering of four series, the Geena Davis-as-president drama plus ABC's biggest guns, Lost, Desperate Housewives and Alias. Considering that the only cost to the viewer comes as four unskippable 30-second ads, it's the most aggressive effort yet by a network to bring old-school television to the Internet.

If it shows enough promise for ABC to bring it back in the fall, it will stand as another threat to the traditional model of TV delivery, joining, for instance, iTunes' and Google Video's sale of viewing rights to other network programs (including Desperate and Lost). And you can get most of the best moments of Comedy Central's great The Daily Show and The Colbert Report online, without paying a dime to Comcast.

There is a long road and many new pieces of home equipment to go, of course, before the computer-viewing experience becomes as comfortable as the living-room one that viewers have fashioned around their TV sets.

But it's not hard to imagine Internet delivery of TV soon enough fouling networks' relationships with their affiliates, causing viewers to take an even dimmer view of their cable companies, and generally doing more damage to the old business model than the powerful but surprisingly unpopular recording and ad-skipping machines such as TiVo.

CW, the new network being lashed together from the wreckages of the WB and UPN, would be smart to invest heavily in its Internet-viewing options from the outset. If it wants to appeal to young viewers, it needs to try to meet them on their own screens.

But back in 2006, the ABC experiment suggests there are many kinks to work out. They aren't in the ads. Spots from a single sponsor per episode, including AT&T;, Tylenol and Ford, loaded and played smoothly.

But the show is the thing, and ABC's version, so far, looks great but plays much less well than CBS Sports' recent free online telecasts of NCAA men's basketball tournament games or the Augusta National Golf Club's live Webcast from its course during the Masters.

In repeated tries, I never made it past the 16-minute mark in any show. ABC said it is offering shows on a Flash-based video player, which, because it is not as widely recognized for streaming applications as the Windows Media Player-based setup that CBS used, may be shut off by corporate firewall settings after a certain point.

The picture and sound were of undeniably good quality: Just as on a good TV, you had to wonder about the improbable volume of Geena Davis' lower lip and whether it makes it hard for her to enunciate. But ABC limits you to a choice of two smallish viewing windows, about one-eighth (small) or one-quarter (large) the size of my 19-inch monitor.

As with all the video now being offered on the Internet, this is an early-stages experiment, and the potential is probably what counts most. Moving forward, it's safe to presume that ABC and corporate IT departments will find a way to better work together.

Or they won't, and some of us will have to accept that we just aren't meant to watch 43 minutes of Jennifer Garner drop-kicking bad guys on the computers we're supposed to be using for work.

Steve Johnson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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