Technologizer

Internet TV’s Killer App is the Entire History of TV

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For this week’s Technologizer column for TIME.com, I wrote about the new generation of Internet TV boxes, including Roku, Apple TV, Google TV, and the Boxee Box. As I say in the story, I love the idea of canceling my cable-TV service and depending on one of these gizmos to do my consuming of episodic entertainment. But here’s a shocking confession: I’m not that much of a TV watcher, at least if you’re talking about prime-time programming produced in the year 2010.

What gets me excited is the sixty years of old shows that make up television’s back catalog. Stuff I haven’t seen in years. Stuff I never saw in the first place. Stuff that used to be on in the wee hours, back before the invention of the infomericial.¬†Stuff that never came out on VHS or DVD, because nobody thought enough people would buy it to make producing tens of thousands of copies a rational business decision. Stuff that’s good, weird, interesting, important, or any combination thereof.

Movies have the same problem: Two of my favorites, The Wrong Box and Movie Movie, are still no-shows on DVD. With optical media in decline, I kind of assume they’ll never get here in a form I can buy and stick on a bookshelf.

(Then again, some long-lost items do make it onto disc eventually, which is part of why I don’t expect to unhook my DVD player anytime soon: I just bought Ellery Queen, a box set which I feel like I’ve been waiting for ever since the show went off the air. In 1976.)

On the Internet, most of the economic argument against making old content available go away. It’s way less of a gamble to stick some video on a server than it is to mass-produce discs and ship them out to every Best Buy in the country. On the Web, if anyone wants to find an old movie or show, they will find it–and it won’t be competing for shelf space with other, more easily monetizable products. And I suspect people who have been searching for an obscure piece of content for years would be willing to pay at least a few bucks for it.

I’m sure I’m not alone in fantasizing about a future in which nearly any program ever produced is just a few clicks of a remote control away. Yet shockingly little of TV’s heritage is available online in authorized form. (Much of it, of course, is readily available on YouTube in chopped up, blurry, questionable versions.) I remain optimistic that copyright holders will figure out there’s money to be made here. I’m just not sure how long it’ll take.

Bottom line: I don’t care if American Idol ever makes its way to Hulu…but I’m delighted that The Amazing World of Kreskin is there already. May it be joined by a few hundred thousand hours of other classics, forgotten gems, and oddities, before all the master tapes rot away.

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