It’s a stampede to offer Web video


Here is a moment to marvel at.

Half-century-old episodes of “I Love Lucy” are now available on Google’s new Video Web site for a nominal charge to my credit card, to be viewed on my computer any time I wish. Amazing!

Understand: This is the “I Love Lucy” I saw as a child when it aired, brand-new, at 9 p.m. Mondays on CBS, flickering on my family’s black-and-white Magnavox TV. Not to belabor the obvious, but that was long before the Internet, home computers or even charge cards.

A breakthrough like this makes me stop and wonder how people will experience “I Love Lucy” 50 years from now – maybe some sort of patch?

And I must admit: Accompanying the thrill I get from cool new media, I feel the intermittent pangs of an identity crisis. After all, I claim to be a TV writer. But what does “TV” even mean anymore? So who am I becoming?

It’s no news (though it’s in the news daily) that TV and the PC have found their point of intersection, and are milking it for all it’s worth. The boundaries continue to dissolve as “TV-watching” is refashioned into “PC-watching.”

The long-prescribed role for the audience is breaking down. Now viewers can also be interactors, contributors, producers (not to mention critics).

Will the circle be unbroken? “By and by” seems a pretty safe bet.

The YouTube Web site, with the slogan “Broadcast Yourself,” is already scoring plenty of attention and mouse-clicks with its thousands of contributed video clips (including “Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot” and “The Easter Bunny Hates You”).

Likewise free for the viewing are video clips from bona fide professionals. For instance, standup comedy and excerpts from “The Daily Show” await us on Comedy Central’s site, just to name one from the dozens of such Web destinations.

For something a little more sober minded, we can view the full “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” online, as soon as three hours after its broadcast. Imagine! Cyberspace delivery of one of TV’s oldest, most enduring institutions: the dinner-hour network news.

Or, for a newfangled information product, CNN’s Pipeline plugs each subscriber into four simultaneous video streams – some of it live, some of it taped pieces or raw footage – to access at will. (Launched late last year, Pipeline costs $2.95 per month.)

There’s nothing less than a stampede to bring new video content to the Web. As just one example, NBC has announced for this summer an online music-competition series, “StarTomorrow.”

And recently the Los Angeles Times reported that “Steven Spielberg, actor-producer Ashton Kutcher and reality TV impresario Mark Burnett are just a few of the Hollywood heavyweights trying to develop new programs for the Web.”

But few new-media announcements have packed the punch of ABC’s plan to put old-media shows, including its hits “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” on its Web site. For this two-month test launching in May, the episodes will be free, though accompanied by unzappable commercials. This is “just the beginning” of what lies ahead, ABC has pledged.

Of course, Apple’s iTunes already lets us download, for permanent access, current episodes of “Lost” – with no commercials, but at a cost of $1.95 – along with a rash of other programming, from “Jackass” to “Dora the Explorer.” (And how cool is it to watch your shows on that tiny, carry-anywhere iPod screen!)

But how many choices can we sift through even now, at the outset of this TV-PC courtship? Already the options are daunting: old or new; free or fee; streaming or download; on loan or for keeps; fuzzy, postage-stamp-size picture or full-screen, razor-sharp display.

Which brings me back to Google Video, and its sundry fare including “Twilight Zone” and “The Brady Bunch” as well as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and even segments of “The Charlie Rose Show.”

Unfortunately, the program I selected, “I Love Lucy,” didn’t make me laugh. The episode I spent $1.99 to see should have been titled “Lucy Gets the Hiccups,” playing out in fits and starts on my screen, impossible to watch. So did several other episodes, even when I switched to another computer.

Google’s system entails downloading a video file, then maintaining the Internet connection to view it – or, in my case, to make a futile attempt.

On yet another computer with an alternate broadband connection, I visited AOL’s new In2TV site, where lots of so-called vintage shows can be streamed for free. But my luck wasn’t much better. On a 30-year-old episode of “Alice,” the usually brassy waitress kept freezing in her tracks. Likewise, cranky mechanic Ed Brown on an episode of “Chico and the Man.”

So what were the lessons from my PC-watching foray? First, that free is no bargain when the show is unwatchable. Also: There can be a big difference in for-pay video sources (my iTunes transactions went without a hitch).

Mostly, I was reminded that the new age of Webcasts is in its infancy. Bugs and glitches abound. Not that we shouldn’t all stay tuned. But it’s too soon to see all the promises come true.

On the Net: