There is a certain kind of person who takes pleasure in announcing that he doesn't own a TV. By doing so he implies that his personal life is so rich--so much richer than yours--that he doesn't have to entertain himself into oblivion every night, secretly fantasizing that he is the only man who could bring stability to Liz Lemon's turbulent romantic life on 30 Rock. I am such a person. I do not own a TV.
I can get away with not having a TV partly because my personal life is so amazingly rich and satisfying but mostly because I have a computer, and all of a sudden there's an incredible amount of TV on the Internet. In the business of moving video data onto small plastic boxes, the Internet used to be a footnote--it was choppy and low res, legally sketchy and financially pointless. Now, in the post-YouTube era, the Web is infested with video. That's what that Hollywood writers' strike was about. Some people think the whole Net will have to be re-engineered to cope with all the video flowing through it. But is it enough? Should you go TV-free?
YouTube is what first made this question worth asking, and unless there's a cable channel out there that I don't know about, it's still the world's premier venue for Asian teenagers playing video-game theme songs on two electric guitars at the same time. But since it launched in December 2005, YouTube has been largely stripped of the kind of longer-format, commercially produced content that could get you through a solitary evening at home, as opposed to a furtive interlude between spreadsheets. It's becoming what it was always meant to be: a vast galaxy of bizarre amateur snippets. It's like those restaurants that serve only tapas: there's a lot of good stuff there, but afterward, you're never sure that you actually had dinner.
Enter the Death Star, otherwise known as Hulu hulu.com) When NBC Universal and News Corp. announced last year that they were jointly starting their own YouTube knockoff, the guffaws were loud and long: everybody who's ever seen a made-for-TV movie knows that the scrappy underdog always beats the corporate Goliath. But oddly enough, Hulu, which came out of beta in March, is a gorgeous piece of interface design laid over a technically very sweet video player. The offerings are eclectic but compelling: a handful of current shows (The Office, The Simpsons, 30 Rock), a larger handful of "classic"--i.e., old and canceled--shows (Adam-12? Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Airwolf?) and a random, sometimes startling collection of movies (Point Break! The Big Lebowski! End of Days!). No wonder Hulu has reportedly already sold its entire advertising inventory. It's depressing to live in a world in which huge, faceless corporations can do something right.
But Hulu does have huge gaps. You can fill in those gaps two ways. One is with money: Apple's pay-per-download iTunes store has a wider selection of TV shows and movies than Hulu, as does Amazon's Unbox service. Two is with your immortal soul: you can download all this stuff for free, illegally, via LimeWire, BitTorrent and lots of other file-sharing systems.
There are plenty of other services waiting in the wings--such as Joost and Miro--and there's no telling at this point which business model will win out. It's a case in which whoever wins the game gets to decide what the rules were after the fact. But the answer to our original question is obvious: yes, we have reached the tipping point at which it's perfectly possible to replace your TV with a computer. Presuming two things: one, you don't care about a big screen or bumpin' audio because the Net doesn't deliver those yet. And two, you're watching alone. Watching TV on a computer is an experience best savored in solitude. Which isn't a big deal if, like me, you live by yourself. Did I mention how rich and fulfilling my personal life is? Hey, Liz Lemon--call me!