Thursday, June 2, 2011

The two exciting futures of television

A little while back I had a job interview at ‘a major national newspaper’. One of the interview questions was “what would you do with our TV listings?”. My answer was “scrap them and use the space for something worthwhile”

I didn’t get the job.

My point was that IP-enabled televisions are becoming so common, and IP enabled devices such as games consoles and minicomputers are attached to so many more TVs, that access to on-demand services such as the BBC’s iPlayer are edging towards universality.

My friend Steve who knows about these things assures me that the number of IP-enabled IPTV ready 3D TVs in the wild will, according to figures from iSuppli, reach 23.4m by the end of 2011, hitting nearly 160 million in 2015

If you can’t watch whatever you fancy whenever you fancy on your television today, you definitely will be able to in a few years.

If you can watch, for example, Stewart Lee’s monstrously funny Comedy Vehicle just when it suits you, why would you stay up late on a schoolnight to watch it ‘live’?

For that matter, when your Blu-ray player or AppleTV can access the limitless content zoo of YouTube, why would you bother to watch scheduled TV at all?

Well. I’ll tell you.

Because of Twelevision.

As well as sucking down on-demand TV, the next generation of tellies will also connect to social services such as Facebook and Twitter.

As I pointed out in my inaugural post for this blog, watching TV with a community of like-minded souls on Twitter transforms television in an extraordinary way.

Question time is a pretty good show. Every week David Dimbleby chairs a discussion where the questions of ordinary people are put to a panel of the great and the good. Or, if none are available, politicians.

Fire up your laptop while you’re watching Question Time and run a Twitter search for #bbcqt. All of a sudden you’re in a virtual room of people who are cleverer, funnier, better-informed and more sarcastic than you. And they listen when you chip in with your own half-baked opinions.

It’s brilliant, it’s transformative, it’s worth a good chunk of the licence fee on its own.

Interestingly, while we’re talking about the licence fee, my other friend who knows about these tings, Nigel, tells me there’s a subscription-driven version of the iPlayer currently being developed for the US market by BBC Worldwide. If Americans start paying a fiver a month for our TV, what will that do to our BBC?

Communities based on common interests are forming online that are independent of geography. Perhaps one day in the future the BBC’s revenue won’t come from Britons press-ganged into paying up by law, but willing fans of Eastenders and Doctor Who across the globe.

There’s no single international standard of copyright, so there are issues to be addressed before we can get to that utopian world telly ideal.

But we’re moving in two different directions: We want IP TV because it offers choice. The hardware manufacturers want us to have IP TV because it drives sales.

We want live TV because IP-enhanced shows satisfy our natural desire to share our opinions about the stuff we watch. Commercial broadcasters prefer us to watch live TV too, because there’s no skipping those important messages from their sponsors. And the hardware manufacturers are just as happy for us to use our IP tellies to run Twitter, just as long as we’re buying.

Any way you slice it, television is going to change. But it’s going to change in (at least) two substantial and on the surface contradictory ways. We’re going to watch a lot more on-demand content. But we’re still going to choose to watch certain shows live.

So what will happen to the TV listings page in your daily newspaper?

Well, assuming you’re still buying a newspaper in five years, it’ll be very different. The editors will know that you’ve got online menus and EPGs telling you the basics. There will be big panels previewing the important stuff, a litter of hashtags, and link to an enhanced online schedule.

Which is what I said in my interview.

So there.


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