SPOILER ALERT: 20th Century Fox Television and Netflix Inc. are throwing a few plot twists into the Hollywood business story. The former defied convention Tuesday by releasing a DVD of the opening episodes of the popular show "24" only about 12 hours after they aired. The latter -- a DVD rental service that takes orders online but delivers by mail -- is starting to let subscribers watch movies and TV episodes over the Internet.
These developments illustrate at least two things about the state of play in Hollywood these days. First, barely a week goes by without someone experimenting with a new way to distribute videos. And second, those experiments don't yet live up to the promise of the Digital Age, which is enabling people to watch whatever they want, whenever and wherever they wish.
The approaches of Netflix and Fox show how two pillars of the California economy -- the entertainment industry and the technology industry -- approach this problem from different angles. Curiously, or perhaps predictably, Hollywood's obstacles are mostly technological; Silicon Valley's are mostly contractual.
Fox has been making downloadable versions of each "24" episode available through Apple's iTunes store the day after they air. So why bother with discs when the shows are available on demand to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection? Because even "24" aficionados, who tend to be more tech-savvy and gadget-friendly than the typical TV viewer, have trouble displaying downloaded programs on a TV set instead of a computer monitor. That may just be a temporary problem, but it's likely to be a limitation for years to come.