The Forecast for Broadcasts
Published at 7:21pm on 20 Jul 2007
Just as video killed the radio star, the Internet is set to kill radio, TV, and telephone, or at least change them beyond recognition. It's just a matter of time. This article details why scheduled broadcasting is about to fall hard, and what we can expect to replace it.
Broadcasting is Dead
Okay, maybe not dead, but its future looks bleak. To paraphrase Dr. Gregory House, I wouldn't advise it to buy any green bananas.
Broadcasting is an immensely silly way to deliver content to people. Instead of showing people just the programs they want to watch, at the time they want to watch them, you have to show them all programs they might conceivably want to watch, all the time, but starting only at regularly scheduled intervals. And you have to do this even if they aren't actually watching TV at the time, just in case they decide to switch it on. It's a criminal waste of bandwidth that could be put to much better use.
And then there's the problem of feedback. You want to make sure that a reasonable proportion of your users actually want to watch your programs, otherwise you won't make any money. But there's no way to tell if they are watching. You can charge them a subscription fee and assume that if they keep paying it they are enjoying your service. The problem is that at the point when they stop paying it's already too late to do anything about it. So instead you have to pay a sample group of them to let you monitor their TV watching, and hope they are representative of the audience as a whole.
Broadcasting is an outdated concept. It came about through a mix of technological infrastructure limitations, and socialist desire to control people's access to information in the early 1900s. Those limitations and political aspirations have since been rendered obsolete by the Internet, and in so doing the Internet has eliminated the need for all other electronic communications media other than itself, whether it be television, radio or telephone. Arguably it is on the cusp of making books and newspapers obsolete too, just as soon as someone can make a portable digital paper device that doesn't suck.
But if we get rid of television broadcasts, we run into some issues:
- If you can't control what people are watching, you can't schedule advertising to pay for it, which means that you can't make any programs, which means that there is no TV to watch, scheduled or otherwise.
- If people have easy access to content online, they'll stop shelling out for DVD box sets of their favourite TV shows, and yet another handy revenue model disappears.
- Some people like scheduled broadcasts because it means they don't have to think too hard. Sometimes its nice to just flop down in front of the TV and channel surf. And how many great programs have you discovered simply because you couldn't find anything else to watch and decided to give it a go?
Change the Channel
All of these are good points, but they are reasons why channels are a good idea - they have nothing to do with broadcasting per se.
Think of a channel as like a weblog. You can't control the contents of a weblog for the most part. You don't get to decide what the stories will be, or how often they are published. If you don't like the content, you switch to a different blog, just like changing channels on your TV.
Video blogs (vlogs) and Audio blogs (podcasts) work very much like traditional TV and radio channels - the only real difference is that the delivery method is much more bandwidth efficient than broadcasting. If you have no interest in watching Bob's Video Gardening Blog, you don't have to put up with your cable fibres or your local radio frequencies being used up with sending it. Instead that bandwidth is left available for sending you the data you're actually interested in.
A blog may feature advertising, or content that disappears after a set time. A blog may require paid registration before you can see current or old content. But unlike a TV channel, a blog allows much greater subtlety and granularity in the control the blogger has over the content. He or she can decide to permit users to access content at any time or only at scheduled times. He can allow different users to see different content based on their registration details, or their geographic location - and with greater precision than a broadcasting tower could ever command.
Traditional entertainment has always been defined by the medium. TV has to have scheduled channels because that's the only approach that works when using broadcast technology. If you want more flexibility you have to use physical media, but then that has its own limitations (it can't be easily made to expire after a certain time, or require subscription - and such attempts at DRM have always been hugely unpopular in any case).
But the Internet is medium agnostic. You can run the Internet down a wire, or through the airwaves. You can save chunks of it onto a disk. You can archive it, cache it in a proxy, re-route it - whatever. The Internet can fill the role of all other media access paths, and what's more, it can do it in a way that secedes more power and flexibility to the consumer.
And that's the reason why we're not yet using it for everything.
Phone companies don't want you to realise that you can make long distance phone calls via the Internet for free and with perfect quality using Skype. They've spent billions on building and upgrading a legacy network that does the same job but less efficiently and at greater running expense, and as soon as enough people wake up and stop using it, they will no longer be able to fund it. I bet spending all that money on 3G seemed like a really smart move until all the free Wi-Fi hotspots started popping up in coffee shops all over the world.
The cable and satellite TV companies don't want to deliver all their channels via the Internet because then the rickety restrictions and back-room deals they've negotiated with TV and VCR/DVR manufacturers to block consumers from gaining total control of their media will fall apart. Tivo has got them scared already by letting people watch programs whenever they choose and skip the adverts, but if the shows were on the Internet then anyone could write software to work around their stupid DRM encryption and poorly chosen schedules. And worse than that, any hick with a blog could design a better program schedule and put it up on the web for people to watch. A TV channel with no soap operas and no reality TV shows? The horror!
There's no use arguing with it - it's obviously better to do things this way, and it's obviously going to happen. The question is not if, only when. And as usual, like the music giants before them, the TV executives are content to stick their fingers in their ears and hope the problem goes away instead of getting properly proactive and trying to deliver the best online content option they can before their competitors catch on, or before the little start-ups come and steal their empire from under them.
But there's a few things that we should try to get out of the way before the revolution catches us all with our pants down (just like every other technological innovation of the last two decades).
People's love affair with broadcasting may be at an end, but it's unlikely they will want to ditch those 50" plasma screens they just bought for a few years yet. I don't think that the rise of video Internet is going to make people suddenly want to start watching TV on their 19" PC monitor in the study. To be honest, I'm still not convinced that all that many people want to watch it on their iPod/iPhone, but I could be wrong.
What's going to be needed then, is some sort of set-top box for seamlessly downloading vlogs (or whatever) off the Internet and letting you flick between them with your remote from the comfort of your sofa. Apple apparently realised this about nine months before I did, which (I'm guessing) is why they've released the Apple TV, a device whose purpose completely escaped me until today. Personally I can't really see the Apple TV taking off until TV goes fully Web-based, and that's probably still a few years away, but damn if I'm not impressed that they've already got the first product on the market. And it's not some dumb device either - it's a fully fledged Mac in that tiny box, and that means that when people figure out what kind of crazy-arse RSS feeds are actually going to power the TV channels of the future, Apple will have silently installed it into everybody's homes already in a system update. And that brings me to the next point...
When TV hits the Web it's going to be a mess. The BBC will no doubt want it to be delivered by iPlayer, Apple will want Quicktime, Microsoft will want Silverlight, Google will want Flash video, and I bet not a single one of them will think to create an ISO standard meta-data format to replace TV guides, closed captioning, or handle fancy features such as multiple camera angles in sports programmes. This is a simple enough problem - we already know the parameters because we've had TV for a while now, so it would be great if someone could have the foresight to create a proper open standard for delivery of video channel feeds over IP before it's already here, and Sony et-al have bungled it with a million different proprietary formats. If they could get a standard set of video codecs defined as part of the spec that would be nice too, but too much to hope for at this point, I suspect.
So there you go - Internet TV is coming, it's going to be great, Apple is going to be making money hand-over-fist because they'll already have the hardware in people's homes while everyone else is scratching their heads. Oh, and it's most likely going to be a big horrible mess of proprietary nonsense that will make the current situation with buying digital music downloads seem quite organised by comparison. Enjoy!
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