What's Next for On-Demand TV?

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Computer and software companies are coming out with programs that give Netflix and iTunes some stiff competition. Host Farai Chideya talks with tech contributor Mario Armstrong about the latest in on-demand television.


On-demand television, we've seen its most recent incarnation with services like iTunes offering feature-length films available for download. Now other companies are putting on their boxing gloves and getting ready to compete for some of those profits. Here to talk about it is our own tech contributor, Mario Armstrong. Hi, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hey, Farai. How much do you love the movies?


ARMSTRONG: It's that time. I mean digital download, on-demand movies are, you know, it's been around. It's been here for a minute. But there's been some new life that's breathed into this whole, been given into this whole new discussion with Apple and Amazon really stepping up and showing some impressive demonstrations how movies on-demand could really kind of change whether or not you go to the box office.

CHIDEYA: Well, I admit that I would download episodes of Lost, you know, from the iTunes, you know, they have the iTunes service, which is usually for music. But I would download episodes of Lost, and then I can watch them on my little tiny, you know, screen as I'm sitting on the planeā€¦

ARMSTRONG: Right. No, absolutely. And a lot of people do that. I mean millions of people have been doing exactly that. The challenge has been really how do you get - it's been easy to get content on devices. It's been a little bit more difficult to move that content, say, from your computer or a device to an actual, you know, family, living room television screen.

CHIDEYA: So aside from buying a bunch of cables and then trying to figure out where they go, what plugs into what, how do you hook up your main television or your screen to watch things that are on your computer or on a hard drive?

ARMSTRONG: This has actually been around in terms of this technology, what you're talking about. I remember actually testing out a product years ago - I think HP was kind of ahead of their time. It was a digital media receiver is what it was called. And it would basically - it looked like a little set-top box that would connect to my home entertainment system, but either wired or wireless, it would connect to my computer.

So any of the digital content - audio, music, photos - it could display that either on my television set or allow me to hear it through my audio system. So that technology's been there for a while but there hasn't really been this movement of getting movies, which is really changing this whole discussion with Apple and Amazon.

So Apple in the case has looked at this product that they have yet to release but it's, I think the working title is called iTV. And it's a set-top box that would be connected to your home theatre system and it would, wired or wirelessly, communicate back to your computer. So as you downloaded a movie from their iTunes service, it would then be playable on your main screen.

And so that what's needed in order to bridge this gap right now.

CHIDEYA: You know, I'm assuming that that box has storage. Because one problem that you face if you, you know, rip your CDs or download music or download TV shows is that eventually your little computer says no more and you have to buy an external hard drive. So what about the issues of storage as it pertains to movie files, which have got to be pretty big?

ARMSTRONG: That's a great question. And the big thing is that they're talking about just not your average movie file size here. They're talking about high definition quality, which some critics are really saying, wait a minute. Through a broadband connection you're going to be able to download high definition?

Now I know Steve Jobs has been able to demonstrate this, but I've seen impressive demonstrations at other trade shows before and the technology just flopped. And I'm to suggesting that this technology would flop, but I am suggesting that it's going to be - it'll be nice to see that that become a reality. Where you can get that picture quality to come out of it.

So with the high definition quality and that being such a vital piece, you're absolutely right, file sizes are going to be immensely larger than they normally would be. And one of the gripes that many people have so far is that, guess what, Farai, you can't download this content and say keep it on or burn it, rather, to say a DVD.

So at this point I have not heard of any physical storage that you can keep on the box. I've just heard that the box is merely acting as a gateway, a bridge between your computer and getting that video on your television set.

CHIDEYA: Mario, what can we expect in the future from these companies?

ARMSTRONG: We can expect that this is going to certainly push companies like Netflix and other video-on-demand providers to get more in touch with their consumers and try to figure out how they can better provide movies on-demand. At the end of the day, Farai, we want - just like we get our music - we want instant, on-demand access to movies and we want them at home. We're spending money and making investments in our home theatre, we want the videos there.

CHIDEYA: Mario, thanks so much.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is NEWS & NOTES tech contributor. He also covers technology for Baltimore-area NPR member stations WYPR and WEAA.

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