For more than a decade, the focal point of the annual International Consumer Electronics Show has been a digital generation of television sets capable of displaying far more detailed pictures than its analog forebears. The trends toward thinner, higher performance sets continued at this year’s convention, which concluded Sunday in Las Vegas: There were flat panels one-third of an inch thick and screens thin enough to bend, technologies that displayed fast-moving images more clearly and provided brighter pictures at lower wattages, and even prototypes that delivered video in 3-D.
The most notable development, though, was the growing number of TVs that could bring new sources of entertainment to the screen. Seemingly every major set manufacturer unveiled models that can offer video from the Internet, while the brands already selling Internet-ready sets announced support for a wider range of sites. For example, Sony, Samsung, LG and Vizio all said they would produce TVs this year that can display Yahoo’s TV Widgets, a bit of software that any website can use to deliver content from the Net. In short, “cable ready” has given way to “Internet ready.”
Granted, the sets typically limit consumers to a “walled garden” of sites chosen by the manufacturer. Their arrival nevertheless portends profound changes in the TV industry. Internet-ready sets weaken the hold that cable and satellite TV operators have over their customers by enabling viewers to receive much of the value of their services for free. Online video sites such as Hulu are already aggregating popular broadcast and cable TV programs, which they deliver mainly to computer screens. Once the average living-room TV can tune in those sites as easily as NBC or Comedy Central, viewers may be hard-pressed to justify paying $80 a month for the few shows or networks they can’t stream for free from the Net. And cable and satellite operators may find themselves having to cut rates after having increased them steadily for years.
The major studios and TV networks have benefited from cable and satellite companies’ role as gatekeepers to the living room because they’ve been able to extract ever-higher fees for their programs. Plugging the Net into TVs and providing open platforms such as Yahoo Widgets, however, means that anyone with a camcorder and a computer will be able to reach the global population of couch potatoes. Their productions probably won’t approach the studios’ refinement or picture quality, but such shortcomings haven’t hurt YouTube and its supply of clips from the grass roots. In November, Nielsen Online estimated, more than 82 million people watched more than 5 billion videos at the site. Just imagine what those numbers might be if YouTube were a click away on a TV remote.