In2TV: A new twist on old TV

I've spent the last few days--bits and pieces of them, anyhow--playing with In2TV, the new old-TV-on-demand service over at AOL.com.

In2TV bills itself as "the first broadband TV network," and the claim is fair enough. What it's got is hundreds of episodes of a bunch of defunct TV shows from the past forty years or so. Every episode is available on demand, and the whole thing is wrapped with a network-like shell of ads and cheesy promotional material. (The ads, which keep the service free, seem to be fairly low in number, at least in the episodes I sampled.)

The selection of show includes lots of recognizable reruns...but it does have a certain island-of-unwanted-TV feel to it. TV Land has All in the Family, Dick Van Dyke, and Cheers; In2TV has Alice, F Troop, and Head of the Class. You know a programming lineup is short on star power when Welcome Back Kotter is about as close as it has to a flagship. (What's the best single program in the In2TV lineup? For my money, Jim Garner's Maverick, a program I'm genuinely pleased to see back.)

In2TV relies on Windows Media Player 10 for digital rights management, which means it's a Windows-only service. The default viewing option--which works in IE, or, with an ActiveX plug-in, in Firefox--provides a little video window surrounded by ads and pointers to other In2TV features; the image quality is pretty respectable, but I can't imagine anyone sitting down to watch an entire episode of, say, Babylon 5 this way.

You can expand the video window into a full-screen mode; I'd rate the image quality in this view as tolerable-but-only-barely-so (sort of like the stuff I recorded a decade or two ago on cheap VHS tape in 6-hour mode).

Then there's "Hi-Q" mode (available only in IE), a better-quality option in which you download the entire show to your hard drive. (The shows I snagged were about 500MB apiece; you can start watching before the transfer is complete.) Hi-Q looked pretty good, but its "full-screen" mode isn't really full screen; it's more of a most-of-the-screen mode.

That's far from the only quirk I encountered with In2TV. The DRM sometimes apologized to me and said I could only watch video in AOL's viewer--when that was exactly the application I was trying to use. (I believe that the iTunes Music Store may be the only purveyor of copy-protected entertainment I've ever used that has never accidentally refused to let me consume its content.) Full-screen mode flickered in and out oddly; buttons and sliders didn't always respond. The interface feels bloated, with slow-loading graphics and too many empty-calorie fripperies like random "whoosh!" noises when you click on something.

In2TV, in short, isn't a knockout. But it's still intriguing, on several fronts:

Imperfect though it may be, it shows that streaming broadband TV can work, technically speaking. The picture and sound are synchronized; hiccups were few when I tried it; the image quality isn't bad. We're clearly not very far from PC-based TV that's indistinguishable from standard-def broadcast stuff.

I'm glad to see ad-supported Internet video. Between DirecTV and XM and Napster and the odd iTunes download, I'm paying for all the entertainment I can justify at the moment. So it's nice to see AOL experiment with a freebie service.

It hints at the day when practically all TV could be available online. The ability to watch a few episodes of Lois and Clark and Dynasty won't change your life...unless you happen to be a huge Lois and Clark or Dynasty fan. But my time with In2TV whetted my appetite for the time--which I think we'll see within the next five years or so--when complete runs of hundreds or thousands of TV shows will be available via video-on-demand services. Someday, you'll be able to pull up any episode of your favorite shows--I'd love to see It's Garry Shandling's Show again--in moments. (Of course, an amazing array of the TV back catalog is available on DVD, but bothering with silver discs is going to feel really archaic in the not-too-distant future.)

A descendant of In2TV with hundreds of thousands of episodes of thousands of series might still not be a life-changer--but it would be undeniably cool. And it would be a big step in giving us total control over our entertainment.

(Side note: I wanted to provide a screen shot of In2TV in action, but its video window evades capture even by screen-grab utilities that claim to be able to capture video. Anyone know of a screen-capture tool that can snare any Windows screen?)

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Harry McCracken

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