What the hell is going on with TV?
Google TV. Xbox. Apple TV. Roku. All these gadgets promise to make television more like the web. There’s just one hitch: None of them are ready for primetime.
It was no easy feat. I scrolled through my cable guide, but couldn’t watch old episodes. I toggled back to the apps, but ABC didn’t have one. I found my show on Amazon (AMZN), but I’d have to pay $1.99 an episode on top of the $99 per month I’m paying for cable. I pulled up the browser again to search for Hulu, but the site was blocked. And so I spent my first night with Google (GOOG) TV cross-legged on my couch watching Modern Family … on my laptop.
After more than a decade of false starts, web TV is here — sort of. I’m talking about more than just streaming a sitcom on my laptop. We know the web has the power to make any media distribution system cheaper and more efficient. This is different. Thanks to streaming video services like Hulu and Netflix (NFLX) and new portable devices such as the iPad, we’ve begun to expect that TV should be more like the web itself: social, mobile, searchable, and instantly available. When we can’t figure out what to watch, web-based recommendation software (“If you liked Inception, you’ll love Heroes!”) might do a better job of finding us programs we like than the professionals who program ABC — or we might just want to check an onscreen guide of our friends’ status updates to see which shows they’ve enjoyed recently. And once we’ve reached a decision, we want to click and watch on any screen that happens to be nearby.
The web is breaking this model. Ad rates are much lower on the Internet. Networks can’t collect their fees. Cable companies fear losing our business. Someone has to pay for all that bandwidth we’re using to stream our shows. And Silicon Valley is littered with the carcasses of tech startups (the original Joost and WebTV) that believed entrepreneurial thinking and engineering smarts alone could change television.
The rise (and coming fall?) of Hulu
Is cable an endangered species?
Netflix: The streaming republic
What will the future of TV look like?
As with smartphones, there’s a race on among tech companies to own that platform. Electronics maker Samsung is trying to get ahead of the Internet behemoths with Net-connected TVs that support apps. Microsoft is trying to turn its Xbox gaming console into a TV service. Apple is following the Jobs playbook by trying to launch a closed system in which, just as with music, we buy all our shows directly from Apple. Google TV is the most forward concept to date: It offers a full web browser and attempts (but mostly fails) to create a seamless experience for the viewer switching between cable and streaming video.
But for any of those platforms to take off, they’ll need the networks to participate, and that’s proving difficult. ABC, NBC, and their ilk are hamstrung by pay-TV companies, and they’re fearful that by putting web TV on real TVs, they’ll have to settle for paltry web ad dollars instead of TV’s mega ad dollars. Jobs tried to hammer out a $30-a-month iTunes TV service but couldn’t work out a rights deal with the networks and gave up. And shortly after Google TV was launched, those same networks blocked it.