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idiot box
July 15, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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More Than the Idiot Box, Please

It doesn’t take much imagination to say that the way we’re watching television is changing. We’re consuming more and more on our own terms, and less on the networks’. Piracy and internet-based entertainment are eating up profits, while the traditional model of TV seems to be coming apart at the seams. Technological development is charging ahead at breakneck speed, but TV-wise it’s barely a crawl: Sky gave us MySky in 2005, and we’ve since received Freeview and of course the HD additions to both. We’re heading for a digital switchover, and there are separate on-demand streaming services for each network. That’s all wonderful, but really, is it good enough?

If I want to listen to music, I can buy it from iTunes or stream it over Spotify. Hell, if I shell out for a weekly subscription I can even listen to it offline. We’re starting to get to a point where it’s just as easy to listen to music legally as it is illegally, and if you can look beyond the difficult questions of ownership and licensing, then you can be happy that finally there’s a system which makes use of the technology available to us.

Television is approaching that point in the USA, with the rise of services like Netflix and the iTunes Store, but the analogy is closer to a DVD rental service than a television network. Even so, to us New Zealanders it seems like a far-off dream to have American television shows released to us legally, in high definition, on the same day as everyone else.

Even more outrageous is any suggestion that we could download it to our own computers for a weekend binge, get anything on pay-per-view, or watch advertisement-free. We’re conditioned to accept the 1950s model of ‘flow’, where the channel is sacrosanct and the audience merely dragged along with the current. Oh, sure, we can pause, record and rewind, but we could always do that with a VCR and patience. Even pay-per-view Igloo is little more than a digital sheen on an analogue idea.

We can watch online, too, if we can stomach the unwieldy interface and time-sensitive content availability. Even then, we’re shackled to a channel structure which leaves little room for individual choice. Not to mention the fact that flash-based web players like iSky don’t work on iOS devices. You can either jump through hoops to watch things the way you like, or stick to the old style. No wonder piracy runs rampant.

So what next? Right now we’re all working off a combination of TiVo and HDD recorders, available as early as 1999. 14 years on, we have cheap, reliable, high-speed broadband internet, a computer in almost every home, and the mothballing of non-digital television.

Here’s my suggestion: a system for watching TV that works like the best marriage of Spotify and the iTunes Store. Entry-level customers can, for free, stream any show at any time they wish. I’d hang on to live channels as well, and live streaming of shows like the 6-pm news. The trade-off is that users will be forced to watch un-skippable advertisements—in much the same format as Spotify—taking advantage of existing TV-advertiser relationships to make the slots more valuable. I keep bringing up Spotify, because word on the street is that they’re looking at launching a TV service in the near future.

Viewers should be able to watch sport and movies at a modest pay-per-view fee (Igloo almost got that bit right). Don’t forget the option to download advertising-free shows and movies right to your hard drive at a cost, taking a leaf out of iTunes’ book.

Predictably, the second tier is a ‘Premium’ service, where users can pay a monthly subscription to access the same content for free, without advertising. The key is a dynamic pricing structure that basically means you don’t have to pay for all the sport or movies if you don’t want them.

Ideally, it would run on every platform: a set-top box for high definition on the lounge flatscreen, an iPhone and Android app, and a nice little computer programme to tie it all together. Before you say that the internet speed is too slow here, remember that this would be at least two to three years away, anticipating ultra-fast broadband.

Hey, I’m not saying that my plan would work perfectly. There are doubtless some problems with fitting that into a business framework, and probably some other issues I have no idea about—DRM would have to be there, of course. But I don’t think any of that is insurmountable. In any case, it’s time to act. If the metaphor is ‘flow’, then now is the time to divert that river and build a water park before the waters dry up for good.

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