Monday, January 09, 2006

"Coming Soon to TV Land: The Internet, Actually"

The New York Times has an interesting article online about the future of TV in the age of the internet. It is scattershot and all over the map but well worth the (free) registration hassle. The setup:
What would a world with television coming through the Internet be like?

Instead of tuning into programs preset and determined by the broadcast network or cable or satellite TV provider, viewers would be able to search the Internet and choose from hundreds of thousands of programs sent to them from high-speed connections.

In the battle for the living room, cable, satellite, and increasingly, phone companies are trying to defend their turf by offering more choice through an array of content in video-on-demand programs.

While it is all over the map and you would serve yourself well to just go and read it through, two things in the article were keepers for me. First was the forthright admission that all the dreams hinge on more adequate bandwidth.

Proponents stress that the open- video Internet is still in its infancy and the battle may not be completely joined until a new generation of faster Internet connections reach the home. This is because to stream digital video requires about 1.5 megabits of bandwidth to send conventional NTSC video and from 6 to 8 megabits to send high-definition video.

Currently broadband data rates in the United States reach just 1.5 megabits or less, but those speeds are beginning to rise after years of delay as D.S.L. and cable companies upgrade their plant and equipment with fiber optic lines.

The second insight concerns the question of whether any one provider can compete with the richness of the net. The author, notes the eagerness of the current providers of cable, satellite and to some extent phone companies, to hang onto their priviledged positions as providers of video, by mimicking web characteristics like download and freedom of selection by using "video on demand" and similar features--sometimes over IP. The issue, he cogently points out, is whether they can control enough content lock customers into their provision as they clearly hope to do. That hope may be futile; it seems that history is on the side of the net:

But fending off the Internet's openness will be a struggle, one that the online companies themselves lost years ago.

At the onset of the dot-com era, large online service companies like AOL, Compuserve and MSN tried to lock customers into electronic walled gardens of digital information.

But it quickly became apparent that no single company could compete with the vast variety of information and entertainment sources provided on the Web.

The same phenomenon may well overtake traditional TV providers. Potentially, IPTV could replace the 100- or 500-channel world of the cable and satellite companies with millions of hybrid combinations that increasingly blend video, text from the Web, and even video-game-style interactivity.

Two things would seem to make our current situation different from the old AOL/MSN/Compuserve days: video is harder to produce than html and AOL et al. never owned the connection into your home.

What made the web more powerful than AOL or MSN was that millions of individuals and institutions decided to put up html content for free use. They posted pages. It wasn't always apparent that they would. MSN wasn't crazy to think that if they could corral enough publishers, authors, and designers it could offer a viable alternative that it could milk for huge returns. It was only the stubborn creativity of masses of people at homes, small businesses, and local institutions that thwarted the walled garden vision. For internet TV (what I prefer to call DV, downloadable video) to match that something very similar will have to happen with video production.

I don't see why it can't. Institutions like our own Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) exist everywhere in this country...places where a person without cash or expertise can go and learn how to do video. Perhaps even more importantly, I am typing on a laptop that comes bundled with programs like garageband for sophisticated music makeup and imovie which allows movie creation on a scale that would have been called professional just a few years ago. Could I do Star Wars? No. Good Morning, America? Yes. Not with the elan of professionals but a basic talk show with video "intake" segments is well within reach of many, many americans.

The other issue standing in the way of DV dreams is that AOL and MSN didn't own the connection into your home. In their dialup heyday the phone company did and had no vested interest in keeping you the consumer corralled. They were happy to undercut the "networks" and become your ISP. As was cable. Had AOL or Compuserve actually owned that last mile and if the FCC of the day had been amenable to killing the common carriage rules the corporate dream of a balkanized "gardens" of proprietary content that could be milked for endless revenue even while serving only a fraction of the people a fraction of the content that the real internet has become might well have been realized.

We'd all be poorer for it. And we should all be worried that with the cablecos and the phone companies being allowed to wear away at the principle of net neutrality the burst of creativity that the real internet occasioned will not be repeated with video. And we'll all get IPTV from one of the big guys instead of DV from every creator with modem.

Interesting times.

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