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October 21, 2004

Addressable Television

Jeff Jarvis of the BuzzMachine, Fred Wilson of AVC Blog, and some others had a lunchtime conversation on the future of video access. I like the term "addressable television" to describe the ability to get television content in a similiar fashion as getting web content. The area of disagreement is which technology is going to "win".

Here are the contenders as the group saw it:

  • Video on Demand (VOD)

  • TV delivered via phone lines (IPTV)

  • Video on the Internet (Streaming)

  • Downloadable Internet (BitTorrent)

Many of the crowd there found the BitTorrent model compelling, citing the history of the music industry and napster as likely to be repeated for video. I tend to agree that to a certain extend, this is already happening, with people avoiding copyright law and putting up content on the web, and the roadblocks from moving video streams from a DVR to the internet are quickly eroding.

Here's the basic point:

I think the advent of the media-centric PC will cause this trend to accelerate. If my family room is driven by a PC with a DVR, set top box, and web browser built into it, connected to cable for both programming and high speed data, and then connected to a nice big flat panel display, the option to watch a show via live TV, VOD, DVR, or Bit Torrent is just a click of the remote. And when its that easy, why will my girl's choose to watch One Tree Hill via DVR when they can just as easily get it via Bit Torrent?

Then there's the issue of what you didn't record. Take the whole Jon Stewart Crossfire thing. I didn't DVR that show. I don't Tivo Crossfire. I don't watch Crossfire. But I love Jon Stewart and when I heard he slammed those guys live, I went to Bit Torrent and downloaded the show and watched it. Apparently a lot of other people watched it that way too.

While I agree that is a compelling, I think there are hurdles to make this vision work in the long term. I think they will be overcome, but for a large percentage of the population, VOD, especially if it expands to becoming a centralized DVR, is likely going to be the easier solution.

First, I think the battle will ultimately be played out on HDTV. The cost of HDTV is getting lower each day, and more and more people are buying HDTV-ready sets. More and more content is being delivered in HDTV format, and it won't take too much time before people demand HDTV streams as a viewing preference. HDTV content will ultimately have a "broadcast flag" making reproduction more difficult for people, and the size of the files will increase. Granted, most people will accept lower quality video than audio (eg mono vs. stereo), but I still think it is an issue.

Second, I view video's relationship with people different than the relationship people have with music. People listen to music over and over again, but in general, video is a single use commodity for the most part (I have a 3 year old daughter so I can tell you there are exceptions to that rule). This changes the calculus slightly in that the pain to download a video has to be less than the pain to download a music track, or it doesn't seem worth it.

Third, there is a shelf life issue. Music is fairly easy to store and since people listen to it over and over again, it has a long shelf life on a networked computer. A lot of video content has an expiration date and while compelling at a certain moment of time, quickly diminishes in utility and will be tossed away in the dumpster of time. The Jon Stewart/Crossfire video may be easy to find, but try and find one from two weeks ago.

All these issues can be overcome, but content providers have an excellent opportunity to create their own services before the suffer a napster-like meltdown. The Comcast article makes it clear they have their own stake in making it successful. At the end of the day, it's going to take more than litigation and the clear path is an iTunes or Netflix model for charging for content.

Jeff Jarvis makes some excellent points as well, but I'm not ready to embrace his vision of Citizen's TV:

New tools and citizen producers will reduce the cost of producing TV to a comparative nil and there goes the barrier to entry to video.

: What excites me most is that reduced cost of production. That's really what drove weblogs: history's cheapest publishing tool reduced the barrier to entry to media and allowed anyone to produce and distribute text content. Now this will come to video. I've said it before (warning: I'll say it again) ... A half-hour of how-to TV that now costs X hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce can be done quite respectably -- and probably with more life and immediacy -- for a few thousand dollars. New content producers will pop up all over (just as they did in blogs) and now they can distribute their content freely (thanks to BitTorrent). That is where I want to play.

While I agree the production costs of video will drop, I still think it be a while before people outside the artistic fringes start creating their own video content worth watching. I think video production will still in general be more difficult than audio production, and that hasn't exactly taken off.

I do think video convergence is the "next big thing" and is undoubtedly going to be re-shape a lot of the industry in the next few years. There's a compelling need to have "addressable television", and PVRs are just the tip of the iceberg.

Posted on October 21, 2004

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Comments

Think about this... In Korea, where broadband penetration is over 80% and the speed is a between 6 and 15MB true speed, people are sharing TV shows between homes, legally. With the right P2P framework, we could view most any show, at any time...

Posted by: Jonathan Greene at October 22, 2004 08:08 AM

The "worth watching" part is obviously the tough subjective. Reality TV, improv-type fiction (like "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), and documentary films are basically providing ordinary janes/joes with the model for cheap production. Sure, it might not be a "Desperate Housewives" mega-hit model, but (sadly) it took a "desperate" network to make that hit. There's no shortage of creativity out there - intelligent people will figure out how to make good content on-the-cheap if you provide them with an audience, ditribution, and potential funding. And when it's ready, I'll be willing to join the "Must-link TV" community.

Posted by: Chris at October 23, 2004 09:46 AM

Chris,

I think you make some valid points and made me think a little harder about it. Public Access Television probably is what I had in mind, but I think I was being too narrow-minded about it.

Surely, there are those people now who have the creativity and ideas that don't "fit" the profile for broadcast television, but probably could attract an audience. Those Jib Jab political cartoons have probably been seen by more people than most television broadcasts, and having an internet connection directly to the television would make the audience even larger.

Posted by: Will at October 24, 2004 07:19 PM

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