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The inevitable death of TV

Posted by Nathan Strum, 06 July 2012 · 938 views

I pick up MLB.com At Bat for my iPhone pretty much every year. For those unaware, it lets you access standings, scores, stats, and news about your favorite baseball team, lets you listen to every game live, watch video highlights, and follow along with a neat little graphical app. You even get to pick your home radio station to listen to. For those of us living in an entirely different state than our home team, this is a very cool thing. The cost works out to less than a dime per game.

This year though, something funny happened.

Well, not funny "ha-ha", but funny "different".

So I guess I could've just written, "Then, something different happened."

Right. Well...

A while back, I picked up the new Apple TV. I'd been waiting for a 1080p version to come out, and it finally did. It's pretty cool. If you've never seen one, it's way smaller than I expected it to be. Barely bigger than an Atari 2600 cartridge. But that makes sense, since it's basically just some of the guts of an iPod Touch, minus a screen, plus an internal power supply and a few connectors (HDMI, Toslink, Ethernet, etc.).

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It does some pretty nifty stuff. I can wirelessly mirror some of my iPhone 3GS output to my HDTV, including playing music, slideshows or videos, and I can stream content from my iMac too. It lets me watch YouTube and Vimeo, buy movies or TV shows from iTunes, and offers subscriber services for Netflix and some sports leagues.

Shortly after I bought it, the MLB season began, and so I ponied up the money for MLB.TV Premium. This allows me to watch (almost) any game at home on my Apple TV (or on my iPhone, or my computer for that matter). And, despite my U-Verse connection barely being able to keep up at times, the HD looks very good. Admittedly, it's pretty pricey, but it still comes out to less than a buck-a-game, so that's not too bad. Plus, it comes with a free version of MLB.com At Bat. However, since I bought that app first, I'm not sure how to go about getting a refund. I e-mailed MLB.com and they said "contact Apple". Yeah, like that would be fruitful. :roll:

Next, I got a free Netflix trial. I never had Netflix during their DVD days since renting movies is something I only rarely do. Besides, when I do want to watch a movie at home, I almost never plan far enough ahead to think about having one mailed to me. It's usually spur-of-the-moment, and rarely often enough to help keep, say, Blockbuster in business. (Does anyone miss them? Hello? Anyone? Didn't think so.) What's nice about Netflix's streaming service, is that it's well-suited to that spur-of-the-moment movie watching I tend to do. One flat fee, watch anything they have, at any time. Nice. Netflix has a pretty decent collection of movies and TV shows for rent, too. I've already caught up on some episodes of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and some old episodes of Stargate SG-1. Plus, I can also watch what I rent on my iPhone or iMac. The quality is pretty good, although a lot of the TV stuff isn't in HD, and the HD isn't nearly as good of a quality as you'd get with a Blu-ray disc. But again - flat monthly fee. Cheaper than even buying one Blu-ray disc, or going to the local mom & pop video store and renting a couple of movies (which I still do from time to time).

The problem with Netflix is that they don't have streaming versions of everything they used to have DVDs of. Some stuff will show up on their website as "unavailable". Also, it can take some movies quite awhile to show up there, and some of the movies get cycled through, so they may not be available later on.

Apple has what I'd call an "adequate" selection, although they seem to have more old TV series than Netflix does. Of course, Apple generally sells their stuff, while Netflix rents. So if you want to watch old episodes of Barney Miller, well you're out of luck with Netflix - you'd have to buy them from Apple. The problem with that is that I don't want to own them. Music? Yes. Some TV series? Sure. Some movies? Absolutely. But each of those I'll buy on DVD or Blu-ray, because they're keepers. I'm a luddite like that. But watching an old episode of Barney Miller because I happened to stumble across it, as if channel-surfing on TV? I don't want to pay $1.99 for the privilege, thanks. It's a one-and-done sort of thing, and I'm already paying a great, whopping U-Verse bill every month for TV as it is. But by the time it may (or may not) show up on TVLand nine months later, I may have forgotten about it entirely, or may just not be interested. Or AT&T might have dropped TVLand by then.

Between Netflix and Apple, Netflix has the edge. Even though their content may be somewhat lacking, Netflix is one fee per month for unlimited rentals. With Apple, you pay for everything, individually. Sure, you get to keep it (except for rentals), but if you don't want to buy something, it's way overpriced relative to Netflix.

That said, Apple's rental model does work for some things that Netflix doesn't have. Movies I'd normally rent on Blu-ray, but don't want to buy. Or documentaries, such as the recent "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview". (In fact - I rented that just the other night. But that's another blog entry.)

So what does this have to do with the inevitable death of TV?

There are a lot of services out there now for streaming video: Amazon, Hulu, various cable, news, sports and other TV networks. Everyone has come up with their own schemes for getting stuff out there. Some you buy, some you rent, some are free.

The problem is, it's not all in one place. Different places charge different amounts, and different set-top devices offer different services. For example, I get free streaming because I'm an Amazon Prime member, but never use it. My Apple TV won't stream it, and I don't particularly like watching TV on my iMac. I suppose I might be able to mirror my iMac to my Apple TV, but that's in another room, and still doesn't put everything all in one place, or unify payment for it.

Here's the thing that I found rather revelatory about all of this - if someone could figure out a licensing scheme that would keep the studios happy, and put all of this stuff in one place for a reasonable monthly cost, then TV as we know it would be doomed. Overnight. I almost never watch TV programs when they're actually on. I DVR them, and watch them when it's convenient. I only watch a tiny fraction of the channels I have to pay for in order to get the few I really want. And there are shows that don't air anymore that you can only find on sites like YouTube, or buy on DVD compilations. What's needed is a way to watch what I want, when I want, for a reasonable, single monthly cost. Currently, nothing does that.

It's all so fragmented now, that your average consumer can't put all the pieces together themselves, and even for those that do, it's still a convoluted mess. Some people have managed to go internet only, but it's not for everyone. Not even close.

One problem is that the network infrastructure for this on a broad scale simply doesn't exist in the U.S. I have AT&T U-Verse which is barely able to keep up with HD streaming. But the network is getting bigger, and broadband will continue to work its way into more and more homes. That's more a matter of time than anything.

Licensing content from the various studios, networks, etc., would be the biggest nightmare. Royalties are a killer, and that still hasn't been worked out satisfactorily in the music business yet.

Plus, the companies providing the high-speed network to funnel all of this through would still be making a chunk of money, as would whoever the final content provider would be (be it Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Google or some other company). So there will always be someone to pay great gobs of money to. I'm not saying this will be cheaper, but I am saying it could be better. It certainly won't be easy.

But the thing key thing to remember is that we've been through this exact same thing before - with music. The music industry realized that because of illegal downloads destroying their business, that they had to change the way they did business. And Apple was the company that got the music publishers on board to that line of thinking. It's still not perfect, but one thing is undeniable - an entire industry did change. Can Apple do it again? If not, certainly someone will. I think it's inevitable.

The killer app for TV would be choice, and that's what the most exciting possibilities are here. Being able to choose and only pay for what you want. See it anytime, anywhere. Anyway you want. Whether old documentaries, TV series, classic movies, recent blockbusters, baseball games, whatever. Want to watch the extra content from a Blu-ray release? Pay a little more. Want to watch your favorite college team's football games? Pay for that. But don't pay for 500 channels you never watch. Someone, somewhere will come up with a way to make this work. They'll figure out a means of paying royalties based on what actually gets watched, so everyone gets their share of revenue. They'll find a way to include advertisements, or let you buy your way out of them, and put it all into one easy to search, easy to use interface. A set-top box like the Apple TV is the way to go - not integrating it directly into a TV itself. TVs tend to stay in homes for a long time, and HDTVs are still big-ticket items. A $99 box that can be upgraded (or just replaced) makes much more sense. For controlling it - a smart phone app. The touchscreen interface would be perfect if done right. Onscreen keyboard for typing, playback controls, access to your library (including a way to organize things the way you want), etc. Not just a remote, but the organizational center for your DVR and video library.

Apple already has a remote app of sorts for their Apple TV. The problem is - it's terrible. While it does add the ability to use the keyboard for searches, where they blew it big-time was in not re-creating the menu system of the Apple TV in the remote app itself. Instead, it just becomes a substitute for the physical remote's directional buttons. So you slide your finger around the iPhone, and use it to select items on your TV, instead of directly on the app itself. Apple really misses the boat on some obvious things sometimes. :ponder:

The big question about a unified approach to streaming TV content is - can anybody really do it? Netflix is the closest. Apple? I'm not so sure. They did pretty well with music, but with movies and TV, I think they've dropped the ball. They need to move Apple TV away from being a hobby, and look into making it into a revolution. They need to not only embrace more streaming services, but partner with them, and come up with a unified interface, search function and billing system (in fact, my Netflix account is billed through the iTunes Store already). They should also open up the Apple TV to third-party apps. That's what made the iPhone the massive success it is.

Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson in his biography, “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

To me, that sounds like he'd cracked the interface design. From looking at my Apple TV - we haven't seen that yet. The Apple TV is still a bit of a chore to use. Fixing the remote app would help a lot. As it is now, it's too much clicking to get where I want to go, and I can't search through all of the services on it at once, to find what I'm looking for.

But the real hurdle with what TV is going to become will be the content itself. Licensing, billing, royalties, getting everyone to participate, and doing so in a way where the consumer gets what they want, without paying any more than they do now.

Crack that, and then you'll have something.

When I saw the Atari cart I thought: oh man, that's cool.
But then realized it's just to compare sizes, I still need my CRT TV...
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IMHO the problem with all of these TV replacements is they are delivered via the Internet. And in many cases the broadband ISPs are telcos who have a TV side of the business. And I bet they would prefer people subscribe to TV rather than using more Internet bandwidth.

In my case I'm trying to better leverage the TV I subscribe to. I've coded up a tool which finds movies on the 50+ HDTV channels I receive using the guide data from SchedulesDirect (I have a subscription for OTA MythTV). I then look through the list and set my cableco PVR to record them. It's amazing what gets shown - from the Star Trek reboot to Inglorious Bastards to Rapsody in Blue.

Why don't I ditch my cable TV? Live sports, my wife watches NASCAR and stuff like the Tour de France - live sports which aren't always available via Internet. I am also in Canada so some Internet video sites (like Hulu) are blocked. Netflix Canada also doesn't have as big a selection.

There's also the bandwidth side of the equation. Although my cableco may squeeze the HDTV bitrate compared to OTA, I'm still getting more than the internet version.
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i haven't had proper TV in years. It's pretty alien to me to wait through commercials or pine for next weeks episode. I dropped Comcast altogether when I heard they were sniffing my packets for big media companies to sue me.
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