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Tune In TV's Comeback

Editor's Note: Jon D. Markman writes a weekly column for CNBC on MSN Money that is republished here on TheStreet.com.


The most addictive visual entertainment around these days is not on YouTube, wireless phones, Google Video or in theaters. It is good old-fashioned television, updated and reinvigorated for the late 2000s like no other mass medium on earth.

Hello, artful, compelling and free Lost, 24, Prison Break and The Daily Show. Goodbye, reality-show geeks, video-cam amateurs and overpriced movies. Contrary to dire predictions of its imminent demise, scripted television is not dead yet, or even sleepy, as it enters a new season this week.

Emerging from a do-or-die battle against the exodus of its audience to ad-skipping digital video recorders, iTunes and DVDs, episodic and comedic TV is in fact staging a dramatic comeback to reassert itself as a great moneymaker.

And it's providing a nice pile of loot for corporate parents at broadcasters CBS (CBS), Walt Disney (DIS) and News Corp. (NWS), and cable operators Viacom (VIA), Time Warner (TWX) and Comcast (CMCSA).

In tandem, the shares of most are rebounding after years in the wilderness. The good news for investors is that media stocks still have a long way to go to restore lost credibility and value, so there is still time to sock them away while ratings and earnings results are less attractive than they will be in a year or two.

See It Now

What's changed? A few years ago, inexpensive, easy-to-operate digital recorders such as those from TiVo revolutionized viewing habits. But now television executives have rediscovered their sense of creativity and generated a new round of shows that beg to be watched fresh, not off a hard drive or DVD. The secret has been to create dramas replete with enough real mystery, quirky story lines, edgy acting and buzz that they function more like sporting events than predictable sitcoms. Much as you don't want to time-shift a live NFL playoff game, you wouldn't want to miss an episode of Lost. The idea isn't to create just "must-see TV" but "must see right now TV."

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