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So many TV shows to watch... in so many ways

Chris O'Brien
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

My family's descent into TV-watching chaos started slowly in 2004. And it began with an innocent observation.

"Hey, Netflix rents TV shows, too," I noticed.

And so, we slowly broke from our lifelong TV viewing habits by watching a season of "24" on DVD. Since then, our choices in terms of how and where to watch a TV show have exploded, particularly in the past year. The ability to watch any show, anytime, anywhere has somehow given us more control at the same time it's left us feeling overwhelmed.

We're typically bred to believe that more choice means more freedom. And that's true. But it also means more decisions. Do I pay or not pay for a show? Do I watch it on TV or my laptop or iPod? Do I watch it at work or home? (Of course, I never watch at work. Honest!)

Tim Bajarin, principal analyst for the consulting firm Creative Strategies, said this is the next great dilemma that Silicon Valley and Hollywood must solve: Simplify and rationalize these choices to make decisions easier for customers.

"I want my content, my way, in whatever device is handy," Bajarin said. "And that's where we as an industry have thrown so much confusion and roadblocks in front of the consumer. All of these devices are interesting because they end up being repositories. But they're not connected."

The latest entry into the increasingly messy field is Hulu.com, the ad-supported service that shows TV shows and clips from programs originally broadcast by FOX and NBC. Hulu.com just came out of beta and I haven't figured out if it will fit into our viewing lives.

For the moment, I've got enough choices to manage.

Here's how our TV viewing has evolved: As I noted above, things started to unspool four years ago, when we watched the first season of "24" on DVD. It was a revelation. First, this was the ideal way to watch a serial show that ends with a cliffhanger each week. You don't wait a whole week for the next episode, just watch the next one. And second: No commercials meant the one-hour show lasted only about 40 minutes.

This proved to be a small, subtle adjustment in our lives. Because we didn't have HBO, we started renting some of the premium channel's hits, like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." Our first child was born in December 2002, so this was also incredibly convenient because we couldn't be sure when he'd sleep. The pause button was a magical thing.

But eventually, there was a new problem: We'd get caught up, and then the latest seasons would take months to come out on DVD.

And so, about 18 months ago, I began to look into BitTorrent. This proved to be an incredible amount of work. For the uninitiated, this involves peer-to-peer file sharing to distribute large files, such as TV shows and movies. It also means you have to search countless BitTorrent sites and install a piece of software to download a file, which could take hours.

If you find a file that works, you must make sure you have the appropriate software to read it. And then if you want to watch it on TV, you have to burn it onto a DVD, which can also take hours.

On the other hand, it's free. And could be faster than waiting for the next season of a show to be released. And cheaper than upgrading a cable package.

Fortunately, iTunes began selling TV shows. About a year ago, we went crazy downloading episodes of "Lost," "The Office" and "Battlestar Galactica." And because I recently had bought a video iPod, I could also sample episodes while I was traveling, which is how I got hooked on "Heroes."

But this is when things got overwhelming.

First, we realized that we spent $40 one month on iTunes. So then we began doing a complex analysis to figure out whether it would be cheaper to get TiVo. And if we did, would it be cheaper to get digital cable and Comcast's digital video recorder service?

We did upgrade to digital cable. And with it came a new option: Comcast's On Demand. This seemed great at first glance. Except some TV shows were available, but most were not. And we had to pay 99 cents to watch the shows that were there. Last fall, for instance, it didn't offer "Heroes," which ran on Mondays at a time that was inconvenient for us.

Fortunately, NBC began offering several shows, including "Heroes," for free on its Web site the next day. And because we installed WiFi in the house, we could set my wife's laptop on the coffee table and watch "Heroes" there.

So this is where we are today. I've got a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" DVD sitting next to my TV that's been there for about three months. Sometimes "Curb" pops up On Demand. I sampled a free episode of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" from iTunes that I watched on my iPod.

And now there's Hulu.com. And of course Netflix now streams TV shows online. Friends tell me I should also check a service called TV Central, which is apparently a paid peer-to-peer service that may or may not be legal, and may or may not be based in China (the Web site lacks such details).

So what now? Bajarin says the opportunity is for some company to create a product that brings all these choices together.

"If someone can figure out how to create my channel, and put all these links together, and it goes into one place," Bajarin said, "that would really simplify this for consumers."

And meanwhile, my VCR, that time-shifting gadget of yore, remains connected to our TV, but untouched for years. A dust-collecting reminder of simpler times.

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