Online television: Channel surfing

The BBC iPlayer is just the start of a revolution in the way we watch TV. Tim Walker casts his eye over what the internet has in store

Daytime television in Uzbekistan is semi-arid, like the climate. Today, there's an in-depth report on a trade fair for the fossil-fuels industry. In Chile, meanwhile, a man in a top hat made from aluminium foil is in the middle of a frantic telephone call as part of a show along the lines of Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (non-Spanish speakers can deduce as much from the incessant laughter track). In Côte d'Ivoire, a Christian TV network is showing hammy adaptations of Bible stories. And back across the Atlantic in Suriname, a Shakira song is being used to advertise lager.

This snapshot of global culture is brought to you by the power of internet television (specifically, a minor website, in the global scheme of things, called wwiTV.com). Not only can you now watch those chumps off The Apprentice being told they're unfit to soil the sole of Sir Alan's shoe, but you can also tune in to channels that would otherwise be off-limits, from internet-only broadcasters like Canadian network VBS TV and Al Gore's Current News, to international operators covering, well, trade fairs and top hats.

The daddy of online broadcasting is the BBC iPlayer, which since its launch late last year has swallowed up between 3 and 5 per cent of all internet usage in the UK. More than 42 million programmes have been watched using the service. That seven of the top-20 shows were episodes of Torchwood (adding 10 per cent to the show's total viewing figures) says much about the net nerds drawn to internet TV, but then 100,000 also used it to watch the first episode of The Apprentice. The iPlayer appeals to a mass of people previously unimpressed by the web.

Now, iPlayer is available on television sets via the Nintendo Wii, which means that catching up on Mad Men no longer need be a solo experience. The corporation is in talks with Virgin Media about offering iPlayer through its broadcast platform. And some anonymous bright spark has also devised a way to watch iPlayer with a PlayStation 3 – with the BBC's tacit approval, if not their collaboration.

The iPlayer website is so popular that internet providers demanded the corporation help fund service upgrades to save the web from meltdown. They claim that if nothing is done to ease the strain placed on the network by so much video content, the internet may pack up altogether. Ofcom has estimated the cost of the necessary upgrades at £830m.

Later this year, the ISPs will have an even bigger blockage to squeeze through their pipes, with the arrival of Project Kangaroo. A joint venture between BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and ITV, Kangaroo will be an archive site collecting content from the UK's four largest terrestrial channels, allowing viewers to catch up on their favourite shows even after the seven-day iPlayer window closes. Kangaroo will be a commercial concern, complementing iPlayer and 4 On Demand by offering a mix of ad-funded and pay-per-view content. It aims to do for online TV what Freeview did for digital.

According to industry experts, the BBC is pursuing a policy of "fewer, bigger, better" shows; the more viewers are freed from a rigid viewing schedule, the more flagship shows like The Apprentice and Doctor Who will be surrounded by an ocean of no-budget filler.

However, the iPlayer success of BBC3 shows like Torchwood and Gavin and Stacey is heartening, and suggests that niche programming has a home online, too. As well as watercooler TV – say, the last episode of Lost – Kangaroo will also carry a library of other, more niche series. A BBC spokesperson suggests The Mighty Boosh as an example of a leftfield show that appeals to an internet-savvy audience, and rewards repeated viewings.

"Project Kangaroo is potentially an even bigger watershed than iPlayer, because there are so many broadcasters involved," says Lisa Campbell, editor of Broadcast magazine. "They're in discussions with Channel Five and other broadcasters to join the party as well. But so far the structures of the television business aren't changing massively. Some major broadcasters have launched digital offshoots, but they're still quite few and far between."

While broadcasters inch ever in to the online arena, some big online players are edging towards television. Bebo, the social networking site used by ITV to virally market Gossip Girl, just generated the first web-to-TV leap with Sofia's Diary. Fiver, the new teen channel from Five, bought the online soap on the basis of its 500,000 Bebo views per episode – a ready-made audience that few broadcasters would turn down. Bebo's second televisual success is KateModern, another online soap, in which viewers can suggest where the action should lead next.

New online-only broadcasters are cropping up by the day, though few can match the quality of mainstream broadcasters. One exception is Al Gore's Current TV, which aims to serve as an "independent voice" for 18- to 34-year-olds who "want to learn about the world in a voice they recognise". Its short, viewer-generated "pods" of programming won the channel an Emmy for best interactive television service last year.

"Current TV is well-respected," says Campbell. "They've got an interesting proposition with some unique content. But it is still very niche. The benefit that mainstream channels have is the strength of their brand and their ability to market their shows. They can cross-promote online, on-screen and so on, and get high audiences. If you're an online niche player, you don't have the marketing budget to do that."

Even big broadcasters such as the Beeb have found it hard to make any money, so far, from their online endeavours. "They're getting into it because they feel they have to in order not to be left behind," Campbell explains. "But it's proving difficult to find the right commercial model to generate revenue. People expect things to be free online, so they want to get sponsorship and advertisers on board to make it free.

"There's also been a delay regarding rights for online content, and who owns it in particular territories. it's complex; there are a lot of issues which have prevented the content getting out there, which explains why there are so many illegal downloads. Those things need to be worked out before we can say this is the next big thing."

Web-soaps or Wallace & Gromit – who says there's nothing on?

BBC iPlayer ( www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer )

Weekly viewer numbers recently hit 1.1 million, up from 750,000 in January. Since the service's Christmas launch, more than 42 million programmes have been viewed. All the corporation's flagship shows, including The Apprentice, are available for up to a week, and there's no pesky software downloads – the shows can be streamed straight from the site, and they buffer remarkably fast.

4OD ( www.channel4.com/4od )

Channel 4 beat the Beeb to the punch by launching 4 On Demand in November 2006. The service is available online and through cable television networks, and has free archive episodes of programmes, such as Desperate Housewives, for up to 30 days. Unlike iPlayer, however, the online version requires you to download a Mac-unfriendly piece of software.

ITV Catch Up ( www.itv.com/catchup)

ITV is joining forces with the BBC and Channel 4 for Project Kangaroo. Until then, you can watch shows from all four ITV channels from the past 30 days via their Catch Up site.

VBS.TV ( www.vbs.tv )

Vice Magazine, the Canadian countercultural freebie turned global behemoth, launched its online channel in October, with Spike Jonze as creative director. Streaming pop culture, travel and reportage in a tone familiar to readers, it has already screened a documentary about an Iraqi heavy metal band as well as a programme on North Korea.

Joost ( www.joost.com)

A sleek site full of free programming, which took 150 software developers two years to perfect (it's still at the "open beta" stage – effectively, being road-tested by the public), Joost has a vast range of shows for anyone with an operating system recent enough to download the peer-to-peer software. The site has licensing deals with programme-makers including Endemol, RDF and Aardman Animation.

Current TV ( current.com)

Launched by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in 2005, Current TV streams short, independent-minded "pods" or short programmes, such as a Zimbabwe documentary. The content is created by users, then filtered and approved by the in-house programming department. Last year, the network won an Emmy award for best interactive television service.

Wwi TV ( www.wwitv.com )

Worldwide Internet TV streams live programming from across the globe, a lot of which is either unintelligible or plain rubbish, but it's a useful resource nonetheless. There's even a Kazakh channel available for those who will inevitably wish to seek out the real Borat. Strangely rewarding.

Mania TV ( www.maniatv.com)

A US-based online channel that claims to have 10 million viewers per week, Mania TV cancelled its user-generated content last year due to lack of demand. The professional stuff that's on there is of some quality. Mania also has a live stream to generate the illusion of a regular television channel.

Bebo ( www.bebo.com/Video.jsp)

The social networking site recently generated the UK's first web-to-television crossover show, with online teen drama Sofia's Diary being bought by Five for its new teen channel, Fiver. It's also the home of web-soap KateModern. This week, KateModern's plot will crossover with that of LonelyGirl15, the American web-soap.

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