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TVs Tune to the Internet

A decade after the Internet became a commercial force, HDTV set makers and their partners increasingly are looking to harness its reach to bring video and other content directly to flat-panel displays in the living room.

Among the bevy of Internet-connected TV demos last week at the International Consumer Electronics Show here, Macrovision showed off enhancements to the next version of the interactive program guide it licenses to TV manufacturers — code-named Neon — to include access to Web-based video and a viewer’s personal photos, music and movies.

“The No. 1 request we get from the TV guys is, they want direct-to-TV content,” Macrovision Solutions executive vice president of marketing Corey Ferengul said. “They definitely believe the TV is losing ground to the Web.”

In a separate concept demo here at CES, Macrovision streamed Web video provided by CBS, including episodes of the network’s drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, to a networked TV set accessed directly from Macrovision’s CE IPG.

“We’re using the TV as the Web portal,” Ferengul said, noting that specific content and features that are made available will be up to the consumer-electronics manufacturers.

Sony chairman and CEO Howard Stringer, as part of his CES keynote address last Thursday, said virtually all of the company’s products will become networked in the coming years.

“Consumers expect choice,” he said. “They expect services to work with any device.”

Stringer called out the Internet features of Sony’s Bravia HDTV, which have been available previously as a $299 “set-back” add-on. Beginning this spring, he announced, select Bravia models in the U.S. market will now incorporate the Internet technology as a standard feature.

Sony has set a goal that by 2011, 90% of its product categories will connect wirelessly to the Internet and to each other, according to Stringer.

Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation Network has 17 million registered accounts, with 2.1 million accounts added in December. The service, accessed through Sony’s gaming consoles, has generated 330 million content downloads to date, equal to 33 million DVDs.

Stocking up the gaming console’s digital video library, Sony announced a deal last week with Viacom’s MTV Networks to bring some 2,000 hours of programming to the PlayStation video-delivery service.

Samsung Electronics got into the swing, announcing it will provide interactive applications and content from Yahoo, as well as other content providers including YouTube and Showtime Networks, to Internet-enabled flat-panel HDTVs starting this spring.

Select models in Samsung’s 2009 flat-panel HDTV lineup will be powered by Yahoo’s “Widget Engine” platform for applications written using Web standards such as JavaScript and XML. The Samsung HDTVs will connect to a home network via a built-in Ethernet port or an optional Wi-Fi USB adapter.

The Samsung Internet@TV Content Service will include widgets from Yahoo properties, including Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Weather, Yahoo! Finance and photo-sharing site Flickr, as well as content from USA Today, Google’s YouTube, eBay and Showtime Networks.

The new service will let Samsung customers “interact and connect with many of their favorite Web services on a personal level,” Boo-Keun Yoon, executive vice president of Samsung’s visual display division, said in a statement. “It’s frankly way beyond just passively watching broadcasts and is no doubt the future of TV.”

Rob Hayes, senior vice president and general manager of Showtime digital media, said the Samsung service provides another outlet to use as a promotional vehicle for subscriber acquisition, offering, for example, free episodes of new series.

“To be able to put this into someone’s living room, and give them the chance to sample our content — in HD — is a robust way to promote our service,” he said.

Netflix, meanwhile, announced two deals to bring its library of on-demand movies and TV shows directly to sets manufactured by LG Electronics and Vizio. Vizio’s “Connected HDTVs,” to ship later this year, will have built-in wired and wireless networking.

While there won’t likely be explosive growth of connected TVs over the next few years, Internet-delivered content on TVs is starting to become a mainstream idea, said Parks Associates analyst Kurt Scherf.

“Before, the TV manufacturers were doing stuff just because they could,” he said. “Now, it’s really starting to catch fire. What the last year has shown is that if you get good, high-quality content to the TV, people will seek it out.”

TiVo last week announced an integrated-search feature, which returns results not only from TV grid listings but also for the Internet-delivered content available on Series 3 and TiVo’s HD DVRs. “Broadband video has become mainstream,” said TiVo president and CEO Tom Rogers. “This is a step to 'Google-ize’ television. When you have infinite choices, it’s totally meaningless to channel-surf.”

For its part, Microsoft showed off several concept IPTV applications running on its Mediaroom IPTV platform. An app for BBC Worldwide’s Top Gear that lets fans access content from and download episodes, and one built by Turner Sports and the Professional Golfers’ Association that lets viewers switch dynamically between camera feeds, watch golfing instructional videos and click from static to video advertisements.

Microsoft also said it is adding a network-based DVR feature to Mediaroom that will let subscribers “rewind” programs that are currently airing and watch them from the beginning — akin to Time Warner Cable’s popular Start Over service.

The network DVR feature, Restart Anytime, lets viewers access previously aired shows directly from the interactive program guide or immediately restart currently airing shows without having to schedule a DVR recording.

Two related new features in Mediaroom are Live Anytime, providing video-on-demand access from the IPG to watch previously aired programs; and Download Anytime, which loads VOD content to set-top boxes for later viewing “regardless of bandwidth constraints,” Microsoft said.

Adobe Systems also inked pacts aimed at bringing Web-based video to TVs. The software company announced that it will work with Broadcom and Intel to integrate the Adobe Flash multimedia platform into their respective digital television and set-top box chip platforms.

Adobe’s Flash is a de facto standard for delivering online video, and is used by the largest Internet TV destinations, including Google’s YouTube and Hulu.

By adapting Flash for TV platforms, according to Adobe, television viewers will be able to view Flash-based content and applications from many different popular online providers and entertainment sites.

“Some of this is the inevitable experimentation that you’d expect to see in the industry,” said Gary Sasaki, president of consulting firm Digdia. “What you’re going to have is a consumer base that will eventually get used to the idea — particularly younger consumers — of interacting with their televisions.”

While connected devices were a hot CES topic, Sony was also hyping 3-D video.

In his keynote, Stringer also showed off big-screen 3-D video, presenting clips from Pixar Animation Studio’s Cars, highlights from last week’s FedEx Orange Bowl pitting Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and DreamWorks’ first 3-D movie, Monsters vs. Aliens, featuring a gigantic robot attacking San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s paving the way toward the national availability of 3-D,” Stringer said. “This is a lot closer than you think.”