Half of prospective television buyers in the United States say they are likely to buy an internet enabled television. A study by the Consumer Electronics Association found that demand for internet connected televisions is growing rapidly, although it is still not entirely clear what people will be able to do with them.

The CEA research, conducted in December 2008, suggests that some 14.5 million American consumers are considering buying a net-enabled television this year. There were certainly many new devices on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

“As we saw at the 2009 International CES, internet-enabled devices are taking the consumer technology experience to the next level, and nowhere is this more pronounced than with television,” said Shawn DuBravac, economist and director of research at the CEA. “Consumers want more from their TV experience and marrying traditional television with internet access is providing the next frontier of the television experience.”

The use cases for networked televisions still seem a little unclear. Just under half of online adults in America surveyed said they would use their web-enabled television to find out more information on forthcoming shows or to identify a song in a programme. Others said they would use the web to find out more information about the actors featured.

The main benefits were reported as having access to material at any time and being able to access the internet and television broadcasts together.

Many people are already online while watching television. Almost a third of online adults surveyed said they always or usually use the internet while watching television and another third said they sometimes do.

“Consumers are already using the internet while they watch TV. The next frontier is to create a seamless experience bringing the two together,” observes the CEA research director. “Consumers want a variety of content that they can access anytime. An internet-enabled TV is perfectly positioned to provide consumers with exactly what they are looking for in their next television experience.”

It might be remembered that there is a long history of attempting to bring together the internet and television, with products like WebTV, acquired by Microsoft over a decade ago.

So what has changed? Well, the web has matured and many sites now support web services that can be more easily integrated into other devices. Screens are increasingly high-definition, comparable to computer displays. Online video is now becoming prevalent and the quality of user experience is rising rapidly. Various widgets, gadgets and browser applications can now be built into the display device, rather than requiring a separate set-top box.

However, the user interface for accessing online services through the television remains a challenge, without the support of a mouse and keyboard. The necessary standards, interfaces and metadata services are still not available to enable people to interact with most programmes.

Broadcasters and television service providers are only just beginning to make their programmes available online, and it is still too difficult for the average consumer to watch them on a television display. There are numerous initiatives to address these issues but as yet there are no clear winners in terms of standards, interfaces or protocols.

Meanwhile, early adopters are already finding ways to view web video on their television. Recent research from In-Stat reports that over 40% of young adult households surveyed in the United States view online video on the television at least once a month. Nearly 30% of those aged 25 to 34 with game consoles use them to watch online streaming video.

Within five years In-Stat predicts the number of broadband homes in the United States viewing web video on television will grow to 24 million, driving annual revenues of nearly $3 billion. It says that television networks and pay television operators currently view online video as additive to existing viewing, but web video will ultimately force a complete restructuring of services.

Our colleagues at TDG Research suggest in a new report that with consumers coming to see the internet as a video source, it is imperative for service providers to establish a compelling, branded online presence. The necessity of articulating and executing a robust online video strategy is no longer in doubt, nor is the timing.

Net-Enabled Video: Early Adopters Only? is available from the Consumer Electronics Association and is free to members. Web-to-TV Video Changes Everything is available from In-Stat. PayTV Service Providers and Online Video Delivery: How Soon is Now? is available from TDG Research.