Television is dying

posted 12 December 2007

Actually, television isn't so much dying as fading away.

The problem with television isn't the content. The problem is that "tv" is no longer synonymous with "video entertainment". In the last 10 years television stopped being a medium and simply became a delivery mechanism, one of several ways that we watch short-format video entertainment. And as a delivery mechanism, it totally sucks: it's mostly low-def, quantity is gigantic but you can't choose when you want to watch a particular piece of content (who would design a video delivery system like that these days?) or even reliably indicate that you liked a particular show, so content producers can't recommend content to you or relate shows to each other without limited single-person solutions like TiVo recommendations or crazy hacks like Nielsen sampling.

This two-way communication between producer and consumer, touted as a wonder of the web when it first launched, has shifted from being an unexpected bonus to a requirement, and one that television in its current form cannot meet. TiVo-style DVRs are not a solution to this problem, they are a band-aid on a technology which is no longer suitable for its audience.

Does that mean the big screen in the living room is going to go away? Probably not. Television is fading into the background, not dying -- it will never go away. But look around your living room: is there a radio in there? The answer might be yes or no. As a source of audio entertainment, radio is easy, quick, and immediate, like TV. And like TV, it's also low-fi, time-fixed and limited in selection. It has its niche, but the days when it was the primary vehicle of all news and entertainment, the center of the family room, are long gone. Just like radios got built into your hi-fi set and forgotten, that screen will be used for other things -- you'll play your DVDs on it, and one day (real soon now) somebody will work out a nice way of piping Internet video to it. You might even still call it your "television", but your content won't be coming from a TV station or even a cable network. You might not even own a piece of equipment that can receive a broadcast TV signal. And you certainly won't be at the whim of "programmers" who think you'd prefer to watch your favourite TV show at 7pm on a Tuesday.

Those in the TV business are understandably less sure about the death of their industry. Cable and satellite providers in particular believe they have one gigantic advantage: bandwidth. The sheer volume of data that can fit down a cable is seen as their trump card. But I'm not convinced. I can only watch one show at a time. As BitTorrent-obsessed downloaders discovered in the early 2000s, as soon as your speed of download exceeds the speed at which you can reasonably watch content, you stop downloading. I need exactly enough bandwidth to watch one show at a time. As long as that show is delivered immediately, with no lag, all the other bandwidth is redundant.

As the IT industry has discovered again and again, once the hardware is commoditized, the winners are (a) the guy who's cheapest and (b) the guy with the best interface. If you can manage to be both, you're a runaway success, but most companies can only manage to be one (Microsoft) or the other (Apple). TV and cable companies are not set up to be either of those. Being cheaper would undercut their margins, which would be too risky a move, and their ability to design a usable interface is widely derided. They're not software companies; they don't have the DNA to do this stuff.

So what will the future of television look like? You'll have a box in your living room that plugs into your Internet connection, and delivers video that way. Some of the video available will come from companies that also run broadcasting networks, but probably not the majority, and you'll be downloading it on demand. Some will be paid for on-demand, but lots of it will be paid for by advertisements, even if they are annoying, because "free" will always trump "inconvenient" for a large chunk of the audience. And it really will be one box. There are people who put together their hi-fi system by buying separate components and laboriously cabling them together, but they are fanatics: most people buy one box which does everything, and that's what will happen.

More interestingly, who's going to be building the box? It's hard to say, but I would put my money on Sony. They've got both the software and hardware chops, and more importantly they've also got a content business that can provide the seed for this new delivery mechanism. They will build a box with a DVD slot and a video iPod dock and a wireless Internet connection, and that will be your box. You'll watch video content on it, but email and the text-heavy web will probably remain a small-screen experience. And you'll watch it far less than you used to watch TV, because you have the whole Internet to pay attention to.

Right, that's the future of television, as pontificated by me, as usual without any references or data to back up my position. Any questions?