I spent a few days at CES in Las Vegas last week, mostly to get an impressionistic sense of the hot categories in consumer electronics. Aside from the freakish, seventh-seal scene of snow on the Strip and way, way too many huge plasma flatscreens, what struck me most was the explosion in innovation around freeing TV from its distribution shackles.
As your thumb crawls through your several hundred digital cable channels, TV may appear anything but shackled. Yet it is. What seems like everything imaginable is instead a very thin slice on the video world. The existing channel structure mostly rewards focused programming with enough depth to fill a 24/7 window every day of the year. So the DIY channel and History en Espanol now pass muster, but the Halo 2 Physics Hacks channel does not. An acceptable loss, you say? How about last year's great season on Bravo, long ago overwritten by your DVR to save space?
Both the channel-centric reality of TV and its ephemeral nature are artifacts of the distribution bottleneck of cable broadcast. TV is still in the era of limited shelf space, while the lesson of the Long Tail is that more is always better. The growth of cable capacity over the past decade pales next to the growth in video creation over the same period and the size of the potential microaudiences for anything and everything. TiVo may have helped by at least taking the tyranny of time out of the equation, but we are nowhere near the iTunes model of being able to download everything ever made, anytime.
There are several reasons for this. First, TV has some gnarly rights issues. Content is locked up in all sorts of ways, starting with broadcast network carriage agreements and finishing with syndication. Then there are the costs of streaming high-quality video, which amount to about $2 per hour. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the small matter that most TV is free to viewers, subsidized by advertising. It's not clear how to make downloaded video a good medium for advertising, given that you can't know in advance when it will be seen and TiVo-trained viewers are getting all too good at ad-skipping.
At CES a host of companies were showing and talking about ways to get around these problems, extending the celestial jukebox model to IP TV through subscriptions, pay-per-view or some form of advertising support yet to be developed and made skip-proof:
- TiVo announced that it was shifting its focus from bundling deals with cable and satellite companies to delivering video from the web, including movies on demand from Netflix.
- Microsoft discussed its own progress in developing its Media Center 2005 system into an IP TV platform that any content provider could use to distribute their own wares.
- Akimbo, another TV-over-the Internet company, continued to build its library of streamable video and discussed its strategy to be available on Media Center PCs in addition to its current dedicated DVRs. Dave Networks showed off a similar service, which instead of a DVR uses software running on a PC + an "extender" (slim streaming video receiver) combo like the Media Center. I also spoke to executives at Vidmark, a new company still in stealth mode, which has similar plans (details when they decloak).
- Meanwhile iFilm and AtomFilms are offering more and more streaming video and short films, including iFilm's brilliant Viral Video service.
- Yahoo! and Google are launching video search services on the route to delivering IP TV of their own.
- Then there's Blog Television
I'll be blogging more tomorrow about what Long Tail TV might look like once these companies get traction. But while you're waiting, here's a teaser in the form of Jeff Jarvis explaining "How to Explode TV News in Four Easy Steps".