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Why the speculation about the future of TV is the wrong question

Posted by
8 March 2013


Every time Apple is thought to be about to make an announcement about the future of Apple TV, people get their hopes up: Will Apple solve the problem of TV itself in the digital age? Recently Erick Schonfeld joined the chorus:

TV is broken. We know this. We’ve known it for years. There are too many channels with too much crap. Browsing through the program guide consists of paging through 500 channels you never watch to get to the 20 sprinkled throughout that you do watch—the bundled business model of cable TV means that you can’t just pay for the channels you actually watch.

A lot of us feel the same way. We’ve been waiting for Apple to fix it. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. But Apple doesn’t seem to be doing much about it, and may even be backing off its plans to attack the TV market directly.

But I think Apple is correct in its reading of what is going to happen to TV. They are right not to do much.

That’s because what we used to call TV will just become the largest screen in the house, and often it wont even be controlled via an EPG on that big screen but via other devices, like your smartphone or tablet.

Often this biggest screen (or perhaps more often than not) will be used for linear (as opposed to interactive) content. Some games will also be better on a big screen. What will change is what linear (and interactive video) we will watch regardless of screen, but also on the big one.

More of us will watch stuff we have found on the Net via search or in our feeds. The current increase in the amount of TV channels (from 400 to 500 in the UK in the last few years) will break out of that model altogether. Channels by and large aren’t brands. They will be unbundled to program based watching or even individual videos.

If it’s not the big TV Channel’s controllers who will present us with what to watch who will? The people we follow on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr will or the YouTube, or Vimeo channels we subscribe to will see to that.

One major exception to this trend of everybody watching a very personalised range of things from their social feeds will be big live events. Because anything can be copied at no cost in digital, live becomes the new luxury that everybody wants to experience.

But it is not only live events that can become ‘virtual live events’. Exclusive TV broadcasts of massive popular programs – say a new season of Madmen – can become an online mass event.

Because you can’t interact and connect with other people unless you are consuming the same media at the same moment in time, social media is biased towards stuff we experience together. That is why catch-up TV viewership is already going into reverse.

What is happening to newspapers is instructive. As with writing on the web I suspect the same content will win out in video in the end. What we are seeing is that real time short bursts of information and long reads are thriving. General interest mediocre writing is what is suffering.

Newspapers are sold as a bundle. So when you buy them you get a lot of stuff you don’t read or need. A lot of the journalism and writing in them is exceptionally mediocre, and by getting my news through the internet I can bypass that and cherry pick the best bits.

With video a similar process will happen. What will suffer (and get unbundled) is TV Channels with a mixture of video that’s unremarkable and middle of the road and some very good programming.

So I predict that with video short ephemeral spur of the moment bursts (often live or real time, often amateur – Vine, Gangnam Style) and on the other hand expensive quality content or big live events (like Madmen and the Olympics) will thrive.

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