The Stone Age of Video

Ever wonder what Les Moonves, the CBS chieftain, likes to watch?

Here’s his list of TV favorites, as told to Business Week editor Steve Adler at last week’s Media Summit at the McGraw-Hill Building.

  • The Sopranos (HBO, owned by Time Warner)
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, Time Warner)
  • Californication (Showtime, CBS)
  • Two and a Half Men (CBS, CBS)
  • Criminal Minds (CBS, CBS)
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS, CBS)

Crime. Sex. And family values. That’s the 21st century for you, on HBO, Showtime or CBS. No matter what the Parents Television Council might think, Moonves was inspired to declare this “a golden age of television, once we get back to full speed” as TV writers return to the job.

The first Golden Age of Television was in the ’50s, in grainy black-and-white. That was the first decade that the American family could, in effect, turn their living rooms into home movie theaters. Some of the most creative writers of the time set out to make something of the medium — Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, even Alfred Hitchcock.

There were plays by Shakespeare, music from Leonard Bernstein and Tchaikovsky ballets. There were just four networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and DuMont — and all came in to the living room over the air.

Speed forward a half-century and there still is a Big Four — Fox has supplanted DuMont, many years later. But there are, of course, hundreds of other channels on cable, satellite and telco TV platforms. It takes a lot to stand out, like the painfully realistic scenes of forensic science in the CSI franchise.

And here comes Internet video (“I Want My Web TV,” page 14). So far, some of its most memorable moments involve capturing the complete “Evolution of Dance” in about six minutes; how to mix Mentos and Diet Coke to produce backyard explosions; and underwhelming would-be TV series, such as one about artists coming of age in the digital era, called Quarterlife.

Some big names, like Will Ferrell (, are trying to make an impact with comedy in online video, and Comcast has tried to bring horror to not just the Web, but to video on demand, with Fearnet.

This past week, NBC and News Corp. brought out the slickest professional video site to date, Hulu. Doesn’t work that great on wireless broadband. But if you’ve got a 24-inch screen and a solid broadband connection, you might just find yourself laughing with Homer Simpson in your bedroom or home office.

Not bad, considering we’re just leaving the Stone Age of online video, where the windows on a computer screen are small, the images grainy and the content experimental. A lot like the ’50s. With Hulu, which even delivers some high-definition content, you could say the U.S. is now entering its Bronze Age.

Elsewhere, according to Strategy Analytics, this is the year that 1 billion people around the world will have access to a broadband connection.

But a lot of them are using relatively slow digital phone line connections. Tejpaul Bhatia, the CEO of a company called MediaMerx, which is trying to bring reliable broadband video services to Africa and South America, figures there are only about 300 million users worldwide that are really able to connect at speeds that make video consistently watchable. That’s about the population of the United States.

Interestingly, about one out of three of those users though are in less-developed countries. When there are only a couple TV stations in your city or country or rural abode, the chance to get essentially a world’s worth of video content on one wire has appeal. Even if $45 a month exceeds a lot of people’s monthly income.

In these parts of the world, piracy can be rampant. Distribution can be hand to hand, with DVDs easier to deal with than the Net. And images can get thrown up on a wall with the use of a portable computer projector, turning a village café into a de facto movie theater, according to Bhatia.

It’s probably going to be a few more years before any CEO declares there to be a real Golden Age of online video.

But when that happens, ask for a list of favorites. And who owns them.