Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"TBS Creates First Broadband Net for Video Games"

Mark your calendars: we may be seeing the first stirrings of a phenomenon that will help wipe out television channels. It's been pretty clear for awhile that somewhere downstream, television channels as we now understand them are slated to die. They are creatures, ultimately, of limited bandwidth.

Reuters newswire has released a story previewing a new "channel" concept from the Turner Broadcasting System. Only it really isn't a channel at all. It's a broadband mixed media conception/confection that makes available a set of "classic" video games mixed in with "TV shows" that relate to the games and the gaming audience.

This move is strongly reminiscent of Turner's "Turner Classic Movies" that turned an asset worth next to nothing—vaults of decaying films in the backlot storage rooms of the major production houses—into streams of gold so pure that these days, some movies are produced that never make it into general release and have all their life, and profits, filling channel space on late night TV. Turner's early creation of that market allowed him to lock up vast amounts of valuable material for next to nothing. It looks like he's doing the same thing again: locking in contracts on classic games that are currently worth nothing to their owners in hopes of creating new life for them on "the network." The press release says that he's got more than 1000 games from 17 publishers locked away to be doled out in a steady stream of "fresh" old games to subscribers. Turner stores them on his servers and you come along and play them off the network —no copy, I presume, is ever on your hard drive.

It looks like a pure broadband play. That is, there is no sign that the video content, the "TV shows," will come in over standard cable TV channels—no sign except for the raw fact that the sorry state of broadband in the US (reported yesterday to have further fallen to 16th worldwide,) won't support full-screen, full-rate video. Will folks who are paying $10-$20 per month for the privilege really be satisfied with those grainy postage stamp-sized things that you get off CNN? Which brings us to a little more wondering: it makes good sense to use old games for the same reason it makes sense to use old movies and the stories and press releases say that. But what they don't say is that it is also a necessity. I'm not going to have any problem playing Centipede (my favorite old arcade game) over the net. But one of the full-throated 3-D action games that led heavy gamers to hand craft machines with special processors and video cards? Nah. The really hot stuff won't work.

You know where this is going, don't you? For projects like this to mature (and make gobs of money), these guys are gonna need really big broadband pipes. Current telecom providers, caught up in expensive mergers (BS), or in buying themselves private (Cox), aren't investing in available technologies at a rate that could support a big-pipes level of service anytime soon. Make no mistake, Turner is trolling at the bottom end of this market. He'd love to move up to the flashy side, the HBO level of current games and fancy, in-house produced content layered in with related, full-screen video. And the HBO level of revenues as well.

But he can't. The limit isn't technology. It's in the bandwidth the incumbent providers offer.

The argument that there are no "services" that any one could want that you can't now have is the argument from lack of imagination. I could think of a dozen this afternoon...but my distributed computation fantasies, video telephony, and full throttle wireless location-based services aren't very convincing to folks who are disinclined to believe that such things can really be real--or valuable. They can, of course, and will be... but what should be convincing, even to folks who want to believe they are already being offered the best that is possible, is the realization that Turner's proposed gaming service is designed the way it is around the constraints of America's current broadband system. Entrepreneurs are running up against the wall right now.

Turner should come to Lafayette sometime after July 16th and trial his dream system here. With any luck at all we'll have a full population of people of every income and ethnicity to test it out on--all running at a bandwidth the rest of the country will only be able to envy.

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