I post a lot about transformative technologies and new business models. Folks, it’s time for The Big One: television. TV, at least as we know it, will die… and by murder. Not only do many, hungry competitors want a nice, juicy back for knifing, but television’s own execs see the future coming, and want out of “the old way.”
I’ll give NBC a little credit. As other networks took little real initiative (beside disc sales, and via iTunes), NBC went for Hulu, and went big. NBC saw how the playing field was shifting, and tried to get ahead of the game. Besides, the web allows “rating” and targeting of desirable demographics in a way Nielsen and affiliate schedules can’t- this playing field is profitable.
And the game is shifting. Monitors were “HD” way before TVs; Apple’s Retina Macs were arguably “4k” slightly before home 4k. Monitors, as content-agnostic, act as TVs easier than TVs can be everything else. Apple gets it, selling a set-top box for your not-TV jobs (except for gaming, hmmm…). On the backside, broadband internet can do episodes just fine; the issue is sports and action movies, and even then just for crappier broadband.
Apple is far from the only player in this space, of course. Per their MO, Apple entered this market after standardized but unwieldy solutions from beige boxes and the home-theater homebuilders, and off-the shelf solutions from Boxee, Roku, etc. Post-AppleTV, Google entered with its Chromecast. Then add Microsoft, wanting to make its Xbox your total living-room solution (to include the next hackup of Windows) before Apple’s one-two punch can.
The major, established networks are at least experimenting. A conservative approach is “second screen” content. One of the top uses for the iPad turned out to be on the couch, used alongside TV viewing. Networks are posting extra stats, etc. during games, for example, getting on your second screen by visiting to the network’s page for that game. This is certainly a good attempt, and it collects viewership numbers, but on principle it feels like hedging to me. As if the networks are trying to rationalize and co-opt, embrace and extend, instead of truly transforming. As an even lesser attempt, most phone and table second screens can become your remote with some app, if your display can receive Bluetooth or WiFi somehow.
Also on the backside, meet the backstabbers. Amazon had assembled its own server and bandwidth capacity; its cloud capability is staggering. They’re now producing Amazon-branded web shows to sell, just like they sell everything else, from those data centers. Meanwhile, Netflix’s stated goal is “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,” and has seen success with its own shows, over its own streams. This is all in addition to bit players, such as YouTube/Vimeo productions and other independent webcasts/webisodes. Then add “immigrants” like foreign channels, now able to access our discerning, informed, and tech-savvy viewers (with disposable incomes) via the internet.
Sound like Silicon Valley? We’re just getting started. Besides stealing viewers via broadband streams, multiple competitors want to compete with the major networks by “stealing” the network streams themselves. Aereo is already operating in a few cities, taking over-the-air television, and sending it to your computer via your broadband connection, or to mobile devices via a smaller, more-advanced transmission standard. (Competitors FilmOn and Ivi are basically the same deal.) You want disruption? This is the mp3 of television, and we know what happened when major labels tried to block mp3-based distribution.
Just like mp3, the major networks aren’t happy with Aereo’s operation, and are suing to block it. Their claim is that it’s piracy, plain and simple. Aereo claims it’s offering a legitimate service that the networks aren’t- the ability to watch what you want, wherever you want, on the device you want (including little gadgets)- a service which didn’t exist. If this sounds like the mp3 debate, it’s because it is.
Again, just like mp3, the big networks would be better off in the long term by not stalling the inevitable. They should instead offer their own “television anywhere”; their screwup was letting Aereo get the jump on them while they were unaware. Now, the record labels are posting free mp3s of their singles as promotional schwag, since digital radio is playing those songs anyway and a smart person can do audio capture. Similarly, the production company behind South Park (southparkstudios.com) decided to stream every episode for “free.” You have to watch commercials, sure, but otherwise it’s point and click. More automagic and less of a hassle than trying to find and download a file that might be incomplete or low-quality… or a virus. The studio would rather have most people see the commercials, and a few people pirate, than stall a handy new distribution model, and encourage a greater amount of piracy (with zero commercials).
Of course, nothing really dies, as I keep saying. When someone profits out of a deal, generally someone on the sidelines is going “whuu…” That someone is rural America- testify, declining VHF broadcasts! And sliding FM radio, and AM clinging to solvency. Video streaming gets annoying for the crappy broadband you have to accept in large areas of the country; trying to stream HD sports or movies can be maddening. Aereo certainly isn’t breaking from the big cities soon. Rural people will keep on with the old way (including disc purchases and disc-by-mail as a stopgap), and may resent or actually oppose the new way.
One of these complaints is actually fairly legitimate… but not a deal-breaker either. Video, let alone 24-frame, high-def video, is by far the largest consumer of Net bandwidth. All the static web pages you view in one day, let alone all the e-mail bodies and headers, won’t equal one serious YouTube clip in terms of filesize and Net traffic. If streams and downloading truly kill off both OTA and cable, then utilities (urban and rural) will have to rethink their networks. I’ve already been on one ISP that, with some prodding, admitted they were throttling access to video sites. But, obviously, society won’t make the switch overnight. Urban areas, in particular, will have some time to activate or buy the dark fiber still left from the dot-com bubble. Society will then be warned to bore and tunnel for new fiber.
Television sales are down this year, just like last year… rural America or not. Cable subscriptions, too. I say don’t let the door hit you- I want a world with Vimeo and anytime streaming and mini-shows anywhere, any time. Considering I would have bought a nice monitor and broadband anyway, I want the full future on them, not another rerun of the mp3 whines and handwaving. That future may be winding and uncertain, like Ulysses’, but as a techie if nothing else I’ll be entertained by the ride.