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Last Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005, 10:54 GMT
Viewers start to tune in online
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, BBC
Comedy duo Morecambe and Wise were hugely popular in their day
There was a time when calling a TV programme popular meant that most of the nation sat down and watched when it was broadcast.

In Britain the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special broadcast in 1977 holds the record for the biggest audience as more than half the population tuned in.

More recently in 1990 the surge of demand for power following the World Cup semi-final clash between England and West Germany is cited by the National Grid as the biggest ever -

showing how it too caught the nation's attention.

But such events are rare, and likely to become increasingly so.

Smaller audience

This is because there are so many channels that the possible audience for a single programme is divided ever more finely.

Close-up of video tape cassette, BBC
Video started the move towards time-shifting
But it is mainly because of what the net, and in particular broadband access, is doing to TV viewing habits that is changing how people consume television.

Research shows that what suffers when people use the net more, is time spent in front of the TV.

According to Jupiter Research 40% of homes with broadband say they spend far less time vegging out in front of the TV and just watching whatever is on.

Instead of just watching what is on, broadband is helping people make sure they catch the programmes they want to see or that friends have recommended.

Video recorders started this trend by helping us catch the shows we would otherwise miss, but the net is taking this further by giving people a means of consuming TV when they want to.

The Tivo personal video recorder extended this idea as it automatically learned what you like and stores it for you.

More recently satellite firm Sky launched its Sky Plus service that uses a PVR-type device.

A growing number of PVRs for Freeview have also come onto the market in the last 12 months.

Web watching

Now increasing numbers of people are turning to the net and, instead of waiting for shows to be broadcast, are downloading what they want.

Children gathered around the television set, BBC
Now you do not have to be in to be sure of catching your show
TV programmes are popular on file-sharing systems because good quality copies are easier to get hold of, the episodes tend to be shorter than films and are quicker to download.

Finding the shows you are keen to catch has just got a lot easier thanks to programs such as Videora which unite file-sharing program BitTorrent and RSS.

The BitTorrent part downloads things quickly and the RSS part helps find the episodes and shows automatically.

Sajeeth Cherian, the creator of Videora, said he created the software because he was tired of hearing his college room mate complain about the time it took to find all the episodes of anime cartoons he was a fan of.

"Searching for something is such a 90s way of thinking," said Mr Cherian who predicts an explosion of interest in distributing and consuming TV shows via the net.

It made much more sense to get hold of shows via the net and watch them when you have time rather than make time for them when they are broadcast, said Mr Cherian.

"Videora, like Tivo, allows you to set it and forget it," he said.

"Right now I honestly think we are seeing the infancy of it moving to the internet," he said.

Box fresh

As well as Videora, web users can turn to the numerous net-based projects producing software that search out and store TV programmes for you.

Tivo logo, Tivo
Tivo was one of the first personal video recorders
Myth TV, Freevo, VDR, XMLTV and others let those with a significant amount of technical skill build their own personal video recorder on a computer.

The only problem, says Mike Baker who runs the PVR UK website, is that the legalities of downloading via the web lie in a grey area.

Laws in many countries support so-called "time-shifting," which is what you do when you tape a show off the TV but most frown on getting hold of a show that has yet to be broadcast in your nation.

"But the TV companies seem to be taking the bull by the horns, and many are planning licensed, legal ways for people to be able to do this and be able to take advantage of their vast libraries of shows currently locked away in their vaults," he adds.

Last year the BBC ran a trial of an Interactive Media Player which gave let people download shows up to eight days after they were first aired.

The trial of the iMP has now ended but the BBC is enjoying significant success with its radio player that lets people listen again to shows up to seven days after they were first broadcast.

Although, says Mr Baker, the cutting edge of personal video recording technology is being developed on the web, the idea is too compelling to ignore.

"It won't be long," he says, "before your average person in the street can just go into a shop and buy a box they plug in to their TV and start using right away."

Portable media gadgets get moving
09 Jan 05 |  Technology
TV's future in the hands of viewers
07 Jan 05 |  Technology
TiVo halves prices to drive sales
09 Aug 04 |  Business
Cable firms offer video-on-demand
18 Jan 05 |  Technology
Telewest to challenge Sky Plus
21 Jan 05 |  Technology
Video recorders enter the digital age
16 Feb 03 |  Technology

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