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Yahoo's TV Widgets, available on some Sony, Samsung, LG and Vizio sets, bring the Internet to viewers who might want to use social networking programs like Facebook or keep track of activities on certain sites, like eBay, without leaving the TV program they're watching.
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msnbc.com
updated 3/4/2010 8:58:19 AM ET 2010-03-04T13:58:19

We want Internet access pretty much everywhere we are, even if where we are is on the couch, remote control in hand, in front of the TV.

TV manufacturers, cable and satellite providers are working to grant our wishes — and to make sure they stay in business, as viewership continues to flag and more of us turn our eyeballs to our computers to watch shows on Web.

"The entire TV industry has figured out that they need to have some of the more popular interactive features that you get on your computer come to your TV — especially for things like social networking and having tidbits of information available," said Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst for In-Stat research.

Among some recent examples of the efforts to join the Internet and the TV:

  • Samsung's LED 7000 and 8000 models of high-definition televisions will have embedded Skype software so that Skype users can make video and voice calls through the TVs. Those sets should be available by mid-year in the United States.
  • Cable companies and other pay-TV providers may use software that would provide Internet access via set-top boxes. No new TV would be needed, and the customer's remote control could essentially act as a mouse.
  • Verizon FiOS TV added Facebook and Twitter to its service, so that customers can use the social networking sites to share comments, displayed on the TV screen, about the shows they're watching as they watch them. Also, "If your friends post recent photographs from their family trip, for example, you can see them on your 60-inch screen, which is a lot more exciting than seeing them on a PC," said Kaufhold.
  • Yahoo's TV "widgets" for on-screen Internet access to popular Web sites, weather, sports and news are incorporated into some sets sold by Samsung, Sony, LG and Vizio, among others.
  • TiVo announced a new digital video recorder this week, the Premiere, that will more closely integrate TV shows and Internet content. A search for an actor, for instance, brings up his or her movies that are coming up on TV or available for rental or purchase through Amazon.com, as well as related YouTube videos.

"This is a whole new chapter in TiVo's evolution," CEO Tom Rogers said in an Associated Press interview. "We're moving toward 'Get anything you want whenever you want it.' "

That's the mantra in much of the tech world now, and part of what makes devices like Apple's soon-to-be-released iPad tablet, as well as netbooks and smartphones, so appealing.

Intel, for example, makes not only chips for computers, but a line of "media processors," or "systems on a chip" to help "bring the Internet experience to the TV." Intel's Digital Home Group has done research worldwide to find out what consumers what in their TVs.

"They want gaming, of course, Internet connectivity and applications — what that means is they can get access to photos and videos and movies on demand, in addition to simple things like stocks and weather — all from the television without necessarily leaving the television screen," Cory Booth, an Intel "user experience" researcher, told Tube Filter News in a recent interview.

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Intel's media processor is being used in the Netherlands by Metrological Media Innovations, said Kaufhold, who has seen it demonstrated.

"If you're watching a Formula One race on traditional broadcast TV, for example, cameras are placed outside the racetrack, showing the cars coming and going," he said. "But with an Internet connection, you can, in the corner of the screen, pop up a live shot of your favorite driver, from his helmet camera. It all lines up on your TV screen with a remote control, so you don’t have to have a mouse or keyboard to do this."

'Apps' for the TV
While 3-D TV is on the push list by manufacturers this year for consumers, Internet-connected TV may have just as much, if not more, interest.

"We are indeed seeing about 15 percent of TVs now being sold coming with Internet connectivity," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group research firm.

"However, consumers still need to go to the effort of connecting them — which can require buying more accessories — and take advantage of the 'apps,' which can require a subscription," such as for a movie-downloading service like Netflix.

Samsung recently announced "Samsung Apps," akin to Apple's App Store, but for the company's line of Internet-connected HDTVs, Blu-ray players and home theater systems. Content partners include Accedo Broadband, AccuWeather.com, The Associated Press, Blockbuster, Fashion TV, Netflix, Picasa, Pandora, Rovi, Travel Channel, Twitter, USA Today and Vudu.

“Samsung’s goal over the past two years has been to really push the envelope in terms of consumer experience with connected TV, and 2010 is no different,” said Kevin Kyungshik Lee of Samsung Electronics, in a statement.

"While an app paradigm has its roots on the PC and is in vogue among smartphones, both of these platforms represent 'lean in' experiences, where the consumer is actively engaged and interacting," Rubin said.

"TV, on the other hand, has always been more of a passive medium so it is unclear if the 'app' metaphor will work as well there, as opposed to lightweight 'widgets' that don't obstruct the video or 'channels' that simply represent a wider array of programming choices delivered via broadband."

Leichtman Research Group, Inc. says 24 percent of U.S. households have a TV that's connected to the Internet, according to a recent survey it did of 1,250 households.

Those connections "vary from connecting through a video game system, a Blu-ray player, or the TV set itself," the research group said. "While Internet connectivity has become a common built-in feature in many products, consumers are just beginning to use this feature to watch video from the Internet.

About one in five of the households have a vide game system that is connected to the Internet; 8 percent have an Internet-connected TV set, and 6 percent have a Blu-ray player with an Internet connection.

Internet via the cable box
If TVs with built-in Internet connectivity aren't appealing to consumers, a software program that lets cable providers deliver the Internet via set-top box may be. On tap is a standard, called EBIF — Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format — that could make that possible.

"It’s just being rolled out," said Kaufhold. "By the end of 2010, there will probably be 20 million cable households that have these little interactive cable widgets on their screens.

"So without having to do anything, you’ll have these functions pop up on your screen, which brings you back to your TV and to your remote control. It’s a way to use the technology of the Internet to bring you back to your TV set.

"All of the pay TV services are finding ways to bring these interactive features to you, and in some respects that helps them defend their turf against people using their PCs for everything," he said.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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