Mike’s post on Apps for Telly inspired me to write about something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: my ideal TV of the future.
It’s pretty clear that, with a few very specific exceptions, broadcast TV will become a thing of the past very soon. Other than ‘event telly’, things that need to be watched live, such as the World Cup, the Olympics and (shudder) X Factor, I either watch shows on DVD or record them on my PVR, the excellent EyeTV for Mac.
TV as we currently understand it is broken.
There has been so little great content on free to air broadcast TV in the last few years that I’ve lost the habit of checking the TV schedule entirely. It’s very rare that I flick the telly on and watch the least bad thing on, because there is always something I’d rather watch waiting in my queue of DVDs or recordings.
I’m not in the least bit excited by Project Canvas, mainly because I think the problem with TV is not a technical one, but rather a content one. The content problem could be solved right now, with no technology innovation at all if the will to do so existed in content companies. My worry is that the focus will now be on a grandiose technical solution to an imagined problem.
Far too many content companies view the internet as some kind of threat rather than the most exciting possible platform for them. They no longer have to bother buying expensive licences from the government to get their content to the public, and don’t need to worry about watersheds or public service remits. They can let their content do the talking rather than entering idiotic scheduling wars.
If you were starting a content business now would you opt for the heavily regulated, expensive option of starting a TV station, or would you be looking to the internet?
What’s incredibly frustrating for customers is how difficult it is to get convenient and legal access to content. Watching shows as they are broadcast is legal and quick but isn’t convenient; I’m forced to watch whatever is on at the moment, or organise my life around the TV schedule.
Meanwhile, pretty much any TV show you want to watch is available for free via BitTorrent minutes after broadcast, stripped of ads. So the content companies need to find a way to be better than free. To me, better means some or all of the following things:
- Guaranteed quality
- Better download times
Larry David is available on BitTorrent. It’s unclear how happy he would be about that.
Photo by Sharon Graphics
If you want to download an HD version of, say, a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, you can likely have it ready to watch, without adverts, in under half an hour, for free. Once I have that file, I can keep it forever and watch it as many times as I like. This is what content companies are competing with. Rather than find a way to compete with this, they squeal to the government asking for legal sanctions.
I might well be unusual – though the success of services such as LOVEFiLM in the UK and Netflix in the US suggests I’m not – but I’m not really interested in content ‘ownership’ when it comes to films and TV. I’d be quite happy to simply pay for the content I’m interested in when I fancy watching it. I don’t really care if it sticks around or not. The TV shows I’ve watched more than once are very few and far between.
Before we get any further at all, content companies need to understand that most people’s TV viewing is opportunistic. If you give them the convenience of a reasonably priced rental at the press of a button, they’re likely to go for it. But if I’m asked to pay £10.99 or more for a DRM-crippled standard definition version of a movie, I’m going to pass. So the choice is between £3.49 revenue for a rental or £0.
Perhaps the beancounters think that I’m somehow compelled to buy something, that they’ll get me somehow. Not only is this careless about quality – surely they want to sell me the best content they have, rather than just anything – but it’s not how people behave in the real world. More often than not, when there’s nothing convenient and reasonably priced, I’ll just go elsewhere, which might mean their competition, the free alternative, or maybe I’ll just do something else entirely. As iPhone app developers will tell you, there’s a world of difference between uptake of free and paid content.
For me, the perfect on-demand device would be the one with the widest selection of content available at a known quality and for a reasonable price per unit of content. Watching shows through my computer is OK as far as it goes (and if Apple produce the rumoured i
PonyTablet it will get a lot more OK in the new year), but I still want to be able to sit in comfort on my sofa to watch this stuff, so I’m going to need to have it work easily through a TV.
What I want is a service in which every programme ever broadcast is in an online digital archive ready to be viewed on demand, at the click of one button, so there’s no need for a PVR or for a disc player. I’m even happy to have ad-supported versions for free, or ad-free for a price.
Apple TV is promising, but Steve Jobs says it is just a "hobby". It shows.
Photo by Brian E. Ford
The Apple TV is very, very close to this dream. But, aside from the hideous user interface update in the most recent version of the software, perhaps the ugliest UI Apple has ever produced, the problem is the woeful lack of content. Last night we were looking for something, anything, to watch. There being nothing on broadcast TV worth watching, we scanned through the Apple TV catalogue of films. Without exception, all the films we wanted to watch were either not available at all, or only available to buy.
And that’s £3.49 that Apple and the movie studios are out as a result. It wasn’t that there was nothing we wanted to watch, just that there was nothing that was convenient and reasonably priced. My instinct tells me that there is a massive amount of money to be made out of a service such as this. And no one needs to go near a broadcast network to mop it up.
If Apple, or anyone else, sorted this out in 2010, it would make it the most exciting year ever for TV. Why is it so hard?