The next two years are going to bring big changes in television. Next month, the FCC is going to begin requiring cable companies to let users buy and connect their own cable boxes (instead of leasing them from the cable company). In February 2009, analog over-the-air broadcasts are set to end.
But after spending some time lately with Apple TV and TivoCast, I think the biggest changes are going to come from Internet delivery of content.
Television content has gone through a few transformations already, each leading to more and more niche content. With cable came 24-hour news, weather and sports networks, content that in most markets couldn’t profitably exist in the limited broadcast spectrum. Satellite brought additional capacity that made it profitable to serve smaller ethnic markets like Russians, Indians, Portugese and Ukranians. Tivo brought the ability to watch what you want when you want.
Now Internet TV allows users to get content that would never interest 10 thousand people, much less 10 million. I watch podcasts from CNET, Mobuzz, washingtonpost.com and others on my TV. Yesterday, I watched a 30 minute video of Eric Schmidt at the World Economic Forum on my Apple TV. I can’t imagine any TV network that would broadcast that.
Tivo’s Universal Swivel Search allows you to search across broadcast, cable and Internet content. A search for “LOST”, would theoretically return both the TV show and the podcast. You don’t even need to know where it is; it’ll just show up. (The big difference is that the Internet content will be available within a few minutes, but you’ll have to wait for the scheduled time for the broadcast and cable content.)
Launching a new television network isn’t easy. You have to negotiate for carriage with the three big cable companies, DirecTV and Dish. You’re competing with giants like Disney and Time Warner that can bundle their new channels with must-haves like ESPN and CNN. And, if you manage to get that far, you have to find content to fill the channel.
Internet television opens up the TV screen to anyone with a video camera and a Web server. Some content is already available in HD quality – I watch Mobuzz and washingtonpost.com in 720p. I can’t even get Comedy Central in HD on cable.
The one thing I still haven’t gotten used to is that programs vary in length. Freed from the conventions of television, shows go on as long as they need to. The same show can be 3 minutes one day and 10 minutes the next based on how much they have to say.