With “The Sopranos” rapidly approaching its triumphant return after a seemingly endless hiatus, I thought I could use a refresher on the trials and tribulations of Tony and both of his families. Fortunately, HBO has given me the chance to catch up on the show from its superb beginnings through its pedestrian middle seasons. The best part of all, I am no longer a slave to the TV schedule; I can watch these episodes whenever it’s most convenient for me thanks to HBO on Demand.

Jess Cox

Television as we know it is rapidly changing. Between TiVo, video iPods and TV on DVD, viewers can basically watch almost anything they want, however and whenever they want. But one technology seems to signal this transformation more than any other – Video on Demand.

VOD is a digital cable service in which the viewer has access to hundreds of movies and shows in a constantly rotating library via the cable company’s digital-video servers. With the click of a button, you can watch almost anything. What makes VOD so different from other technological innovations lies in the fact that all of the other TV revolutions require much more agency on the part of the consumer.

VOD is nothing new; it’s already been around for a few years. It started as a premium-channel movie house, offering all of the subscription networks’ monthly movies to their subscribers at their convenience. But its content is quickly evolving to a veritable choose-your-own programming box. Viewers can access more than just movies – it now includes TV shows, music videos, even karaoke. But what does this mean for the future of television? This technology is still undergoing massive changes as the number of digital cable boxes in homes across America continues to increase. And that’s why the available content keeps skyrocketing.

What is truly changing the face of television is VOD’s growing relationship with TV networks. Cable stations like MTV and Comedy Central offer selections from their respective schedules. Even broadcast stations like NBC and CBS are getting in on the action, as Winter Olympic highlights and recently aired “CSI” episodes are available at any given time, though these generally cost a few extra dollars to access.

Why would anyone need to watch any programming live when it’s all available on demand? Who needs a TiVo if the cable company is already storing all the new shows for you? And that’s exactly why on-demand technology, if it continues developing at its current rate, figures to alter the way we watch television. It’s not so hard to imagine a future in which you access your entire viewing experience through a service like VOD. It seems almost inevitable.

So far, I love having the extra programming at my fingertips. With all the movies, I don’t know why anyone would ever bother going to Blockbuster again.

That’s not to say that VOD is without its faults. Choices are still severely limited as the service finds its footing.

Networks seem hesitant to flood VOD with most of their programming, and even charge viewers to access some of it. This apprehension is understandable as television is still an ad-based medium, and On Demand programming (you can fast forward through it) lacks ads. Paying for that content is one way to gain revenue on its rebroadcast.

Also, it can still be prohibitively expensive to fully use VOD with all of the premium channels. And considering that HBO is the poster child for on demand users, offering the most complete programming package, premium channels are a must.

Regardless, TV viewership is changing – and VOD is one of the shifting media’s leading purveyors. We’re no longer stuck to the strict guidelines of the TV schedule. Who knows what the ultimate technological development will be? At the very least, we can start to see that television viewing is on the cusp of becoming something completely different.

– Rottenberg prays for “Grey’s Anatomy” on VOD. E-mail him at arotten@umich.edu.

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