'Appointment' TV on the Web?

The Internet was supposed to let you watch what you wanted, when you wanted. So why is one company trying to schedule your computer time?

By By Stephanie Mehta, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- As most television executives will tell you, gone are the days when the family gathers 'round the television at 8 p.m. on the dot to watch their favorite weeknight sitcom. With a few notable exceptions - the Super bowl, the "American Idol" season finale - Americans have eschewed "appointment" television, opting instead to use technologies such as TiVo to record their favorite programs and watch them (skipping the advertising) at their convenience.

And the Internet only fuels the trend, sometimes called "time shifting." Disney's (Charts, Fortune 500) ABC network, for example, makes available online full-length episodes of more than a dozen shows, including hits such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." Ditto CBS (Charts, Fortune 500), News Corp.'s (Charts, Fortune 500) FOX and GE's (Charts, Fortune 500) NBC. And before it ran afoul of some content companies such as Viacom (Charts), Google's (Charts, Fortune 500) YouTube was a reliable source for finding the best television content you forgot to tape the night before.

So I was surprised to learn that a little company called Paltalk, which specializes in technology for video chat rooms, is repositioning itself as a purveyor of live online video content. In other words, the company is pushing appointment viewing on the Web.

"We are going full-on, ass backward," Paltalk president Joel Smernoff declared in an interview. "We are the opposite of TiVo."

The company on Monday announced a full line-up of weekly shows that debut this week. They include "MusicScene," featuring live performances from new and established musicians; "Hollywood Now," an "Entertainment Tonight"-style pop culture show; and "Provocation Hall," a political program.

The reason Paltalk is pushing live programming, of course, is that it is trying to drive users to its chat technology. And so all its shows will let viewers interact with the hosts and guests using video and text chat services. The premiere episode of "Hollywood Now," for example, will feature members of the cast of the show "Heroes," who will field real-time questions from fans. Viewers also can interact with each other, and, suggests Smernoff, continue keep the dialogue going with each other long after the broadcast ends.

Assembling a live audience has other benefits, too. If users are watching a show real-time, they can't skip ads. That's why so many marketers pay premiums to advertise on shows with captive audiences, such as the Super bowl.

Paltalk isn't the only company integrating video programming and chat. Joost, the online video service started by the team that founded Skype (now owned by eBay (Charts, Fortune 500), also has a live chat component. (However, the company doesn't yet appear to have any live programming online.) And when telcos such as AT&T (Charts, Fortune 500) and Verizon (Charts, Fortune 500) demonstrate or talk about their Internet television strategies, one feature they always boast about is the ability for customers to chat with their buddies while watching the big game or some other show.

Paltalk's potential advantage seems to be its promise of interactivity with the stars of the shows. But what remains unproven is whether a large number of consumers really plan their evening around a show on the 'Net. (Smernoff says the company is ready to be popular: Its group video chat service is capable of handling 5,000 guests in a chat room simultaneously, and could scale to handle more, he says.) In many cases, its success depends on the quality of the programs, and the kinds of guests Paltalk is able to secure for its live chats. Sounds a lot like the traditional television business, doesn't it? Top of page