Yesterday I wrote about a flood of new Internet-based technologies and products that aim to break the broadcast monopoly on TV, potentially creating an open distribution platform for any video content. This, like the smashing of distribution bottlenecks everywhere, could shift consumer taste from hits to niches, creating a Long Tail of demand (yes, I've now programmed those words into a macro to save on finger wear).
Before I turn to how that may change the way we watch, I should correct one point. I loosely described this streamed and downloaded TV as "IP TV" because it uses the Internet as its distribution network. I am now reminded (embarrassingly enough, by an article in my own magazine) that the term usually refers specifically to video served by existing cable and telephone companies using Internet protocols, rather than content streamed across the wide-open Internet by third-party services.
I'm more interested in the latter case--video over the Web--because it's more likely to lead to an open marketplace in which anyone can play. I don't, however, think that an an entirely bottoms-up self-service market such as eBay will dominate. Programming is not a commodity and the quality of the shows, which is the most important thing, is not easy to ascertain without trusted advice and recommendations. Instead, what seems to work best for entertainment media is a somewhat more structured environment, such as Amazon and iTunes, where critics' reviews, customer comments and expert taxonomies can all combine to help people find great stuff fast.
As Thomas Hawk puts it:
"The first major player who builds a team of editors and begins not only publishing the microcontent of the long tail to their platform, but even more importantly builds a comprehensive searchable guide complete with rankings, recommendation technology and other features, will have a huge advantage over the rest of the field."
I realize that this could be SBC or Comcast as easily as TiVo or Netflix, but after seeing the mess the cable and phone companies made of video on demand in its first incarnation, I'm skeptical that they'll move quickly enough and get a critical mass of content. In general it's better to let infrastructure companies provide infrastructure and content companies provide content. But either way, what's most important is that the process of getting video onto these platforms be cheap, simple and transparent.
The best way to do that is to start with a good standard for packaging video to be distributed by such services that can incorporate rich metadata (from keywords to closed captions to full scripts) and, when wanted, DRM tied to some payment system. Needless to say, there are plenty of contenders for this, from the proprietary Windows Media to MPEG4, and no shortage of companies working on ways to extend them. On top of that, there are companies thinking about ways to clear legal rights to video content on an industrial scale so they can package entire libraries for distribution, the way The Orchard does in music.
Coming back from CES, I felt that I had seen the beginnings of a Cambrian explosion in new forms of television, with the momentum of the DVR+broadband+home networking combining to reshape TV as much as cable did two decades ago.
Jeff Jarvis, who has been driving this meme, describes what he thinks is about to happen:
" In the future of exploding TV, a few months away, anybody can create video programming and do it inexpensively with new equipment and tools; they can distribute it online and they can "market" it (that is, it can be found) thanks to metadata and search and links. All this levels the playing field ....I feel the need for a Death of Networks summit. Coffee's on me."
I suspect the outcome will not be a single winner but a wide range of tiers of service, from p2p (read: Bittorent) distribution of Pro-Am content, either free or unlockable for a fee, to commercial services that offer top quality and loads of recommendation features. Some consumers will be willing to pay a premium to stream content in real time; others will pay less and wait for it to trickle into their DVR. And yet others will create a new Napster generation, not just comfortable seeking out exactly what they want to watch online but expecting it to all be there, probably for free.
As Mark Cuban sees it:
"We are about to enter an era where kids can do a search on google, icerocket.com, yahoo and other search engines and get all the video they want of TV broadcasts. Put in a topic. Boom. All the video you could ever want. Put in a name. There it is. Video and transcripts to go with it."
Exciting stuff. Tomorrow I'll write about where this content will come from and what the shift from broadcast to narrowcast to nanocast will mean for the future of Primetime.