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A viewer revolution is coming -- or is it?

The recent CBS decision to make episodes of "Survivor: Panama" available for download on for $1.99 is the latest in a barrage of similar announcements that illustrate the changing nature of television.

Thanks to iTunes, the DVR and other technological advances, viewers can relate to what is going on in "The Office," "Lost," "Survivor" and scores of popular shows on their own terms.

The new products allow viewers to watch television shows at their convenience rather than only when a network schedules them.

Some experts feel the revolutionary alternatives to watching television the old-fashioned way threatens the old TV business model of relying on revenue from commercials.

The broadcast networks dispute this, claiming all the new ways of getting programs actually will enhance viewership by getting an audience it might otherwise not reach.

So far, the download revolution appears most likely to please busy people in big cities with long commutes. The survivors on "Lost" may be home before we fully understand the winners and losers in this coming revolution.

After listening to the hype surrounding how TV will be watched in the 21st century, I expected to see scores of people on my five-hour flight home from Los Angeles watching episodes of "Lost," "The Office" and "How I Met Your Mother" on their portable computers or cell phones.

All I saw was one guy watching a DVD of episodes of "Nip/Tuck."

There weren't very many people using the revolutionary devices that make it so easy for Americans to catch shows in so many different ways other than on their TV sets.

One thing is clear from the confusing picture of the future being painted in separate interviews with network executives, producers, Internet experts and other futurists: No one really knows what to expect.

Meanwhile, broadcast networks are making shotgun distribution marriages that enable viewers to download programs to be watched on their cell phones and computers and shifted to their TV screens to view at their own convenience.

Admittedly, I'm somewhat technologically impaired and didn't realize how the download game was being played. I thought few people would want to pay $1.99 to download episodes of "Lost" or "The Office" from iTunes to watch on their iPods or cell phones.

It turns out that the downloaders may only watch on their cell phones and iPods in desperation. They can download from iTunes and watch on their PCs or even on their TVs with the right devices. The experts say people -- especially younger people -- are willing to watch on iPods if bigger screens aren't available to them or they haven't figured out how to order a DVR. And someone is trying to design special glasses that enlarge the small iPod screen, explained Cyriac Roeding, vice president of Wireless, CBS Digital Media.

"It might look a little nerdy, though," added Roeding.

But as technology proves daily, this is a Nerd, Nerd World anyway.

>What the future holds

Roeding was one of six experts who came before the nation's television critics in California to attempt to foretell the future of TV.

Here's a summary of my conclusions after listening to Roeding; Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media; Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media for Disney; Mark Glaser of PBS Media Shift; Howard Gordon, producer of "24"; and David Katz, head of Sports & Entertainment Yahoo!

* Katz said the Internet has an infinite amount of space that theoretically would enable every television show ever made eventually to be available for viewing. Yes, even, "My Mother the Car."

* The majority of people will still watch television through regular TV sets, the ones with frantic lives and long commutes will more likely watch on iPods and cell phones.

* The frantic ones are most likely to live in cities much bigger than Buffalo, where the commute on most days doesn't last long enough to view a 22-minute sitcom.

* There is a generation gap, with younger viewers more willing to watch TV on cell phones or the iPod. For example, 2 million more people downloaded the "Live 8" concert on AOL than watched it on ABC, according to Adgate.

* Yahoo! and other similar companies have enough subscribers to be considered a broadcast network, which is one reason it plans to produce its own programs.

* The new technologies enable advertisers to know what the whole world is watching and they're targeting you.

The deals with iTunes have made networks and cable channels winners in two ways. They get more revenue to offset production costs. And, in some cases, the ratings for shows increase after they become available via download.

Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, believes the availability of "The Office" on iTunes may have increased its network audience. "You either get on the train or you get rolled over by it," said Reilly. "It's too early to say, but did [the iTune deal] help 'The Office' grow? Potentially, it did. But the network still is the premiere platform . . . It will be the preeminent driver of all these other ancillary services."

Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment, said she was encouraged by the experiment of making available two comedies on Yahoo! "When the first original episode of 'Two and a Half Men' aired after the Yahoo! broadcast, we literally had our highest 18 through 49 number. And on 'How I Met Your Mother,' we had our second-highest 18 through 49 number."

It will be some time before we learn the long-term effects of the revolution on networks, their affiliates, syndicated shows and the creative community.

There is no doubt that there already are two clear-cut winners: The economy and the consumer with deep pockets. All the billions being spent on developing new technology and buying it is driving the economy.

The consumer, meanwhile, can fight progress and sit back and watch TV in his living room just like he did before Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and the rest of the smarties in this Nerd, Nerd World started the revolution.

Or the consumer with enough disposable income can pay his money, join the revolution and take control of what and how he watches TV with or without the benefit of nerdy-looking glasses.


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