This year you'll be able to stream all but one of the March Madness basketball games live online in high definition right onto your computer. This is just the tip of the iceberg of all the great video content that can now be found online.
Fox and NBC are now putting their biggest hits on Hulu.com. That includes shows like the The Simpsons. If you want to catch CBS hits like CSI, surf over to Joost. This service also has an entire library of cinema classics, including Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock and Shirley Temple films.
Of course, though it may be lovely to see Temple tap dancing on your desktop, it would probably be a lot nicer to see her on a flat-screen TV with a bowl of popcorn in your lap.
Internet On Your TV
The tech-savvy know that there are already ways to hook your television up directly to your computer, but these methods are still a little clunky. "You're going to have to have equipment pretty much directly in front of the unit," says Jeremy Clay, customer assistant supervisor at Best Buy.
In other words, you'll be surfing your TV with a keyboard and mouse rather than a remote. That could put a damper on your popcorn-eating plans because, as Clay notes, you "might not have both hands available at all times."
Technically, there's no reason we can't have Internet on our TVs: 60 percent of Americans have broadband fast enough for high-quality video. So, why don't we have it?
Jonathan Taplin, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California, thinks it's because the cable companies don't want it. Right now, these companies can collect a fee for a broadband connection and send you a separate bill for cable.
"They would rather that you pay them 70 bucks a month for maybe a lot of channels you don't use, rather than having you have the ability to just go to the places you want to go to," he says.
But Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable; argues that it's not the cable companies' fault. He says consumers "want Internet-like functionality with professionally produced video." But he doesn't think they really want access to the full Internet on their televisions.
USC's Taplin disagrees. He says most people certainly do want to be able to chose among the full panoply of video online and decide for themselves what they want to watch. But he says the cable companies don't want to give up their power.
"The cable companies like the fact that they are the gate keeper to your entertainment experience," he says.
The Big Question: How To Turn A Profit?
Cable companies aren't the only ones holding up the merger of your TV and the Internet, Taplin says.
James McQuivey, an entertainment analyst at Forrester Research, says the people producing the television programs are also trying to put on the brakes.
"Right now, they haven't figured out how to make as much money from Internet-delivered content as they do from TV broadcasts," McQuivey says. "And they're working on that ... but it's taking them some time."
One person who isn't waiting is Avner Ronen, the CEO of Boxee. His company makes a software program that, once installed on your computer, will enable you to navigate around the Web with a remote rather than a keyboard.
"So you can be leaning back sitting on your couch," says Ronen, "looking at your flat-screen TV and navigate all those different services using a remote control."
But you still may not be able to access all the content you want to see over the Internet — including The Simpsons. That's because Hulu has asked Boxee to block its programming from Boxee software because Hulu's partners, Fox and NBC, objected.
A Hulu spokesperson said that Fox and NBC aren't prepared to have viewers forgo watching their shows on traditional television — a format that still provides the networks with a majority of their ad revenues.
Hulu does have the legal right to prevent Boxee from providing its programming. However, Boxee is already finding ways to legally work around any blocks that Hulu puts up. For now, Boxee users are still able to access most Hulu programming. CEO Ronen thinks he's on the right side of history.
"Users will find a way if they want to see a TV show or a movie," he says. "And if you don't provide them an easy way of getting that movie either with ads or by paying a reasonable fee, then they'll just get it illegally, and then nobody profits."
Ronen says the TV networks and the cable companies are just delaying the inevitable. USC's Taplin agrees.
"They're the ones who don't want this to change," Taplin says. "They've got a really good free cash flow business that they just want to milk."
Taplin says back in the days when radio was the primary medium, David Sarnoff, the CEO of the Radio Corporation of America, kept television in the basement for a good 10 years. Sarnoff may have slowed down the rise of television, but of course, he didn't stop it.
There are no simple or cheap ways to connect your TV to the Internet, but there are a growing number of limited and partially satisfying options for those who want to get out of their desk chair and onto the living room couch.
This little box starts at $229 for 40 GB of memory and $329 for 160 GB. All you have to do is hook the Apple TV box up to your Internet connection through an Ethernet cable or wirelessly. Then, using a remote, you can purchase and download movies and television shows — available in regular or high-definition — from the iTunes store. The downside is that it doesn't provide you with access to anything on the Internet but the iTunes store, and you have to pay for each show or movie (the latter can also be rented).
Like Apple TV, Vudu — available for $149 — allows you to rent or buy movies in high-definition. It also will provide access to some television programs. But the emphasis is on movies, which start at $4 to rent.
For the rather reasonable price of $100, Roku hooks your TV up to on-demand streaming video from both Netflix and Amazon.com. On Amazon, you can rent or buy TV shows and movies for as little as 99 cents. Amazon promises as many as 40,000 titles. For those who already have a Netflix membership, you no longer have to mail back DVDs and wait. Some 12,000 films and shows are available instantly from the online Netflix store at no additional cost with a regular monthly membership fee of $9.
This is the best option right now if you want complete access to the Internet. This isn't just for game players, although it's hard to imagine that anyone but a game lover would be willing to fork over $400 for it. Sony has designed the PS3 as both a gaming console and a home entertainment center. You can use it to watch HD Blu-ray movies, store photos and connect to the Internet. For those who want full access to the Internet and the ability to surf the Web with a remote control rather than a keyboard, this may be the best option out there. When you're not playing games, the PS3's game controller acts like a TV remote and allows you to easily click on icons and navigate around your media files and the Web.
Televisions Connected To The Internet
Several manufacturers now make TVs that offer limited access to the Internet. Samsung is among the best: It has a television that will connect to your in-home wireless Internet access. Samsung's TV offers limited connectivity (so far, no one gives you complete access), but it will allow you to get the stock ticker and local weather from the Internet. You'll pay for this connectivity. Best Buy says these Samsung TVs go for around $1,499.
Several Blu-ray players will connect right to the Internet. But like TVs, at this point they only provide limited access.
Come spring and summer, televisions offering more robust Internet connectivity will hit the market.
Some will let you access services like Netflix without purchasing a set-top box. LG Electronics promises to have a Netflix-connected TV.
Others will introduce TVs capable of connecting to open-source software widgets, such as Yahoo Widgets. This will allow people who are creating Internet-only programming to broadcast directly to these TVs, opening up an entirely new world for program producers.
Although this first generation of Internet-connected televisions will have limited access, Forrester Research entertainment analyst James McQuivey says that in the future — as access opens up — manufacturers will find ways to upgrade the devices you already own.