I’ve worked in the field of digital media and consumer technology for about 8 years now, and for all eight years, I’ve heard people predicting the imminent change and overhaul of the TV industry. Back in the late nineties, it was the dawn of interactive television. In the early 2000s, it was the dawn of IPTV, about to be launched by all the telcos everywhere. For the last couple of years, it’s the end of TV, as it’ll be completely replaced by streaming Internet video and user-generated content (UGC).
Guess what folks, the one hundred and ten million households (that’s 110,000,000) who consume cable and satellite TV are a lot further away from big change than some experts seem to think. Steve Rubel wrote a piece yesterday which I feel contains exactly the examples of misplaced hype:
The race is on to turn your TV into an open content platform. This will bring more programming to your set and much of it won’t come from the traditional networks. Conspicuously absent from the game are your local cable and satellite providers. Should they fail to act, they all run the risk of turning into commodity services.
If you wanted to, you can already ditch your cable or satellite provider. Wired news ran an experiment a few months back showing that it is possible to get a lot of content on your set without them, though there are still lots of caveats. As the big technologies players continue to refine their IPTV strategy, the need for cable TV programming will diminish.
It is most certainly possible to do such a thing, but in an era of increasing HDTV programming (DirecTV is en route to 100 HD channels this year), why on earth would you make such a change? I watch Heroes pretty religiously. Now I can stream every episode from NBC.com, which is a great way for people to catch up with the show, but the viewing experience doesn’t even come close to the one I have now.
Now I suppose I could find an illegal download of the HDTV version, then hook up a PC to my TV set (or buy one of the upcoming “connected home” devices), then watch it that way. But that’s a major shlep for the masses, and most certainly, in every way, a worse experience than using even a cable-company provided DVR (because $800 for a Series3 is still too much, no matter how great the product is).
We also saw a report circulate recently claiming YouTube users watch less TV.
Frequent YouTube users said they are spending less time visiting other websites (36 percent) less time watching TV (32 percent), less time on email and other online social networking (20 percent), and, well, less time on just about everything else.
I guess I’m just too much of a disbeliever in studies like these, and for one basic reason: most people tend to say they watch less TV when polled. It’s as if all of TV watching were merely a guilty pleasure. Yet, reports show Americans are watching more TV than ever before (whether you like Nielsen or not, it is still considered the de facto standard in TV viewership information).
Now I do believe in an increase of video consumption, and believe that the use of both PC-based TV watching and Internet-enabled TVs are on the rise. I believe we will see an increased quantity of diverse options as to how we choose to watch TV. In fact, after all we accomplished at Sling Media, I was surprised to see articles this week with the non-evil-doing Googlers claiming the Internet can’t deliver TV content yet (recommended reading from GigaOm, ZatzNotFunny, and WebTVWire). Sure it can, it’s just a question of how it should be used.
In my Mac-PC video debate last month, Fred Davis and I diverted to talking about broadcast vs IPTV delivered television, which Josh Catone chimed in on in his blog as well. I believe the future on this topic is going to be determined primarily from an economic basis. At present, we have the infrastructure in place where, if desired, every single household in the US can watch the same TV show live in real-time. Broadcasting of content requires no new infrastructure build-out (unless, of course, we want a lot more HD stuff, which, of course, we do). Doing the same thing over IP networks wouldn’t work, and wouldn’t even come close.
So why bother trying to make it work? It simply doesn’t make sense to build out a massive IP infrastructure to do it. However, let’s say that at any given time, all 110MM households want to watch a “recent episode” of a show (say, last week’s Heroes). Best method possible? Give them all DVRs, use the broadcast pipe to get it to the house, let them watch it time-shifted however they’d like.
But now let’s say that all 110MM households want to watch radically different content, such as the episode of The Facts of Life where Blair learns a very important lesson, or that very special Blossom. Then, having access to a personalized, on-demand IP network is ideal. It’s costly to build, costly to maintain, and time-consuming to construct (not to mention dealing with the graphical user interface complexities), but it’s the right model.
Ultimately, I do believe in a future wherein a hybrid of services are available. But it’s the future, and not the present, and there is a lot less of a rush to make it happen than we in the technology community might like. Cable companies have increased billing rates higher than inflation for almost 10 consecutive years (since good old, helpful to consumers deregulation – that’s sarcasm people). The costs to get an IP service off the ground are staggering (ask the people at companies like Akimbo for validation).
So I’ll end by making my conservative prediction: the majority of US households will continue to consume television the way they do today for no less than 5 years, and even then the changes will be gradual and evolutionary, not drastic and revolutionary.