Saturday, May 12, 2007

When is TV not TV?

When it’s not watched on a television set. This is a trend that will be increasing over time, especially in the US. TV viewing figures are down, internet and mobile technology is improving, and storage media is increasing in both capacity and reliability whilst simultaneously decreasing in size and cost. Throw in some cable company consolidations, and result is a recipe for televisual upheaval.

None of this is entirely unexpected, except perhaps to the network executives. Many techno-literates have been using non-traditional viewing methods for some time now – be it automated time shifting, downloads from places like the iTunes Store, via bittorrent; streaming from the internet be it from a network website, or something like shoutcast; or even on mobile devices such as a video iPod, or a Verizon v-cast enabled phone.

With a springtime drop of some 2.5Million viewers over last years figures, broadcasters should start to feel a little worried. Within the next week or two they will be unveiling their fall lineups to advertisers, and a ratings drop like this will only make their position weaker in the negotiations with advertisers.

A good portion of the blame for the drop can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the network executives themselves. Schedules that take breaks for no logical reason, mixing in repeats that are sometimes only a week or two old, disrupt the viewing habits of the audience. Fox addressed this problem with their scheduling of 24 the past 3 years, starting them in January and running them until the end of May without a break - clearly a lesson learnt by watching their UK counterpart, BSkyB.

The network suits must also address what could potentially be the most obvious problem, one that is at the same time both easy and hard to rectify – program quality. The majority of sitcoms are predictable and repetitive, drama’s clichéd, and the game shows either ‘classics’ or based around public humiliation. Worse, many of these are not even ‘American’ shows; the likes of “American Idol”, “Deal or no Deal”, “The Office”, and “Are you smarter than a 5th grader” are adapted from UK TV shows. Not that its ‘new’ as the 70s TV series “Sanford and Son” is based upon the 60’s BBC series “Steptoe and Son”. Nor does it show any signs of stopping as this fall will see a US adaptation of the BBC series “Life on Mars” amongst other new shows.

The other half of the equation comes from the technological sectors, where US TV networks are almost as reticent to experiment with, and embrace new technologies as the music industry. Storage space for both desktop computers and mobile devices has increased in capacity exponentially – A cell phone can have more than 2 GB of storage space, somewhere in the region of 3 times the capacity of an average desktop hard drive some 10 years ago. An iPod can be bought with 80 GB of storage space, that’s more than hard drives just 5 years ago. Price has fallen too, making them even more attractive. The major US retail chain Wal*Mart sells a 2 GB microSD card for just $45, each and every day. Shop around and you can find it for less. This proliferation of relatively cheap mobile storage media means mobile videos are more desirable. Why watch that show on the TV, having to sit through the adverts, when you can get the show later that night, and watch it on your way to work, with no adverts, and can pause it if need be?

Of course, the video has to make its way onto the player in the first place, and that’s where what could be thought of as the final nail in the coffin of the ‘telly’ is introduced. Comcast’s CEO and Corporate Chairman, Brian Roberts, gave on Tuesday (the 8th) the first public demonstration of Comcast’s prototype “wideband” cable modem. The test demonstration hit speeds of up to 150 megabits a second, that’s 50% faster than traditional cat5 networking technology and about 3x faster than the maximum data throughput on an 802.11g wireless connection. Current cable modems in the US typically reach 10mbits/second at most. Of course, he was quick to point out it would be several years before we could start seeing it in our homes, but it’s certainly a sign for the future.

In short, television will have to shake up their long established business models, embrace quality over hype, write their schedules with the viewer in mind, and not the advertisers, and look into new technologies (the UK has had ‘interactive’ television of a sort since the start of the decade) or even look into reinventing old ones such as teletext previously technologically unfeasible under the old broadcast standards. It won’t happen, same as the music industry has so far failed to change its models since the arrival of Napster in the late 90s, although some are beginning to come around.

ben Jones

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