The future of television lies on television, not the Net

There are a group of technologies that are finally ready for prime time, and that together are going to reshape the way we watch television. A couple of weeks ago, CBS announced that it was going to start putting more content on the Web — audio, video, etc. — and it would allow people to choose what they wanted to watch. This is supposed to be a big thing. It isn’t. It is, however, yet another small step toward what I’m going to talk about this week.CBS touted this “new” on-demand approach as an alternative to CNN’s 24-hour format. To TV people, this is a Big Deal. But “on demand” has always been the Internet way of doing things. Heck, it’s always been the newspaper’s way of doing things. CBS is simply doing what gadzillions of other Web sites already do: Offering content for people to choose from. Sure, some of CBS’ content is professionally produced news, and the result is a very slick site. But in terms of changing things, this Big Deal is pretty much a whoop-dee-do. The on-demand Internet is old hat. The future — thanks in large part to the Internet — is true on-demand television.

The times, they are a-shiftin’

For the past 50 or 60 years, we’ve watched TV on the schedule of other people. The Dick Van Dyke show aired at such-and-such a time, and that’s when you watched it. If you were out, too bad. Later, VCRs and DVRs — digital video recorders — came along. They allowed you to postpone and save the shows you liked so you could watch them when you wanted to. It’s often called “time-shifting,” and the entertainment industry fought tooth and nail to prevent you from doing it. And that’s pretty much where things are today. But compare this model to music. Bruce Springsteen’s new Devils and Dust album wasn’t broadcast on a certain day and time the way, say, an episode of Battlestar Galactica is. It was made available then. Music is released. Television is scheduled. That’s going to change. Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has shown people a different model: one where you get what you want, when you want it — where the channel model is replaced by the site model. Channels are limited; sites are not. And that’s how television is going to change.

The pipe ahead

There’s a good chance you have two connections coming into your home: One for television and one for the Internet. Your TV set is hooked up to one connection, and your cable/satellite provider gives you a list of channels to watch. A limited list. Your computer is hooked up to the other connection; your provider (maybe even the same company that provides your TV signal) lets you access an unlimited “list” of Web sites. An odd dichotomy, no? It’s strange because these days it’s all just data. In fact, video on the Internet is likely in the same format as what you get over a satellite or digital cable connection. It’s called MPEG-2, and it’s the same one used on DVDs as well. In other words, that same Internet connection you’re using to view this Web page could be used to bring you full-size, DVD-quality video. In fact, some phone companies have acquired cable TV licenses and are delivering “IPTV” — digital television carried over phone lines, using Internet technology. It’s indistinguishable from cable or satellite, except that the line coming into your living room looks like a phone cord, not a TV cable. And this is why CBS doesn’t quite get it. The future isn’t video on the Internet in a little window on your computer. The future is full-quality video over the Internet to your television. The steps are being taken. There’s IPTV that I just mentioned; so the technology exists to use the Internet infrastructure to carry television. There are faster and faster data pipes coming into your home. There’s incredibly cheap storage; a $200 TiVo can hold more than 80 hours of DVD-quality television. There are services such as MovieLink , MovieFlix , and even Netflix that will (or in Netflix’s case, will soon) let you download movies to watch on your PC. There are Media Center PCs, sold by big names like Gateway and HP , that let you watch and record television shows on your computer. Those are small steps to the on-demand finish line. A larger one is Microsoft’s Media Center Extender Set-top Box. It connects to your television to your PC, so you can not only watch the networks, you can also access the music, photos, and video that are on your computer. Now imagine that CBS decided to archive all its shows at a month after they aired on traditional television. You could access these shows through your PC, which was connected to your TV. Or imagine that a company produced a show or movie that they couldn’t get a network interested in, so it they post the video on its Web site. You could watch it not by changing TV channels, but by telling your TV to go to that site. This is where we’re headed — away from the notion of channels. You’ll be able to go to any number of sites and choose your content from a library. Maybe it will be the CBS library, maybe it will be personal stuff, maybe it will be movies from Netflix. But the idea of channels will end, and with it the idea of networks. Well, sort of. CBS will still have a presence, as will ABC, NBC, and the others, but instead of simply broadcasting shows, they’ll maintain libraries. And they’ll fund shows and movies to try to attract you to those libraries. (How far back those libraries will go, and how much they’ll charge for access, will be up to them.) But it will certainly change the role of cable companies as gatekeepers of content — they’ll simply be pipeline providers. And then all sorts of fun regulatory issues will begin. So just as the World Wide Web lets an individual have as much of a presence as a big corporation, Internet-based television will allow anyone with a digital camcorder and a good script get as much attention as NBC. And that will change everything.