Broadband-broadcast blur

Television and the internet are merging with such whiplash speed that for a while, viewers will have trouble keeping track of all the little technological boxes on top of their sets, much less the countless thousands of shows they can watch, entertainment executives told a television producers' convention last week.

"The explosion of online video has just begun," Ted Sarandos, who acquires movies and TV shows for Netflix, said. "With more and more content out there, it becomes harder and harder to find," said Nick Buzzell, producer at (TV and internet) show maker NBTV Studios.

"With all this digital technology, there's still consumer confusion ...

"And if the consumer is confused, none of it's going to work."

Buzzell was speaking at one of several panels on the convergence of TV and the internet during the National Association of Television Programme Executives meeting in Miami Beach. With a plethora of devices, from video-game consoles to DVD players, now able to liberate the internet from computers and carry it on to television sets, and an increasing number of companies that provide movies, TV shows and original content via broadband rather than broadcast, viewers are headed for uncharted territory, the executives agreed. Netflix, for example, is still best known as a mail-order DVD rental company.

But in the past year it has moved aggressively on to the internet, signing deals with television networks ABC, NBC and Epix to stream their shows and movies to its subscribers via broadband. Nonetheless, Sarandos insisted, Netflix was not really competing with either broadcast or cable television. "Our business is not centred around last night's episode," he said.

"It's all about the history of the show.

"There's a lot of alternatives where you can see last night's show, and most of them are free."

The Netflix audience, he said, was more likely to sit down and watch an entire past season of a critically acclaimed but comparatively little-seen show such as Dexter or Mad Men after seeing a current episode while flipping through TV channels. Convincing television networks of that dynamic, he admitted, wasn't always easy. "We offered HBO a huge amount of money, a huge amount of money, for hit vampire drama True Blood, and they wouldn't sell it to us," Sarandos said, before adding quickly: "I should say, they haven't sold it to us yet."

His point about viewers who sample a show on TV then turn to the internet for more was echoed - or, perhaps, amplified - by Neil Chandran, founder of Freevi Corp, whose company has built an audience for its web-based business-news shows by paying to show parts of them on cable news channel CNBC. "Traditional TV is going to be more of an advertiser and promoter for that web-based TV," Chandran predicted. The blending of television and the internet will affect not only the industry's economics but also its creative process, several executives said.

Audiences will be able to order a product from a commercial or register their approval, or dislike, of characters and plots simply by clicking on their remotes.

TV entertainment will no longer be "a highly produced, scripted, unchangeable medium", but an interactive process in which viewers can instantly influence a show's direction, Chandron said.

Even the lengths of shows will change. "If it takes you five minutes to tell a great story, that's fantastic," Buzzell said.

"If it takes you 22 minutes, that's fine, too."

In fact, the changes are coming so fast that the entire concept of time is turning flexible, the executives said. "Everybody is talking about YouTube like it's been around [for] about 30 years," Buzzell said.

"Actually, it's been six."

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