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Why my TiVo isn’t a flying car May 4, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Technology.
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So I've had TV on my mind a lot lately.  My TiVo is bursting at the seams with stuff I'm planning on watching at some point (and possibly dying to boot), the networks are hastily rolling out some sort of episodes-on-demand functionality, and tech.memorandum has shown me a couple of smart things that Mark Cuban has had to say about TV over the internet in the past month.  That, and I should find out pretty soon whether or not Veronica Mars is going to get renewed for next season.

Here's what we've got now: many passive streams of content via antenna/cable.  You can chunk up these streams into individual files through something like a TiVo, assuming you have reliable metadata about what's in any given stream at any given time.  Now you've got a bunch of media files in a single silo, which may or may not be movable to other devices depending upon the nature of both the source and destination.  This scenario is pretty good (especially considering what life was like before the PVR), but could use a lot of improvement.

On any given day, I can read press releases about people trying to implement "the future of TV".  The good news is that they seem to be moving in the right general direction – cutting out the passive streaming layer and going directly to receiving individual media files.  Now we're back to the old "stream versus download" split from when music on the Internet was the new thing.  Streaming sucks, and the fact that the download model (eventually) won vis a vis audio gives me hope that video will follow.

The interesting question that follows is this: what are the consequences when downloading TV shows becomes the norm instead of passive streaming?  One thing to point out is that this isn't very likely, or at least not for a very long time.  iTunes hasn't killed traditional music distribution (at least, not yet), because the old players are entrenched and have many factors in their favor.  Secondly, passive streaming has a big advantage – it's easy to browse.  People are used to thinking of their TV in terms of "what's on now", or at a degree removed "what's on at any given time".  Moving to an on-demand model means that if you're doing the equivalent of "channel surfing", your list of "what's on" grows by an order of magnitude or more as you multiply all available channels by everything they have posted for immediate viewing.

While it seems very liberating, it's also a problem.  Choice can be paralyzing, and the larger the list of options the greater the chance for mental lock-up.  That list of possibilities needs limiting in some sort of automatic fashion – be it a network executive programming a line-up, TiVo's recommendations engine, an package of shows you subscribe to because of similar topics, etc.  The good news is that all these notions are being worked on right now in the context of music, books, blogs, and everything else that you can now get at via the Internet 24/7.  The bad news is that we may face a chicken-and-the-egg problem: on-demand TV won't be popular until there are tools to grapple with all the options, but no serious amount of resources is going to get poured into solutions until there is an evident problem.

One could hope the problem is as simple as the network see money left on the table, but I'm not very hopeful about that.  PVR penetration keeps going up, and keeps going up faster, and that's a good sign.  The bad sign is that these seem to be mostly PVRs which are provided by the cable companies, which is exactly whom you don't want involved in the process.  They're the iTunes of your living room, charging you for moving bits of information from point A to point B without adding much value.  I already have something which does that, it's my broadband connection.  It costs less and does more.

No PVR prodivded by a cable company is ever going to provide functionality in the best interests of either the content producers or the content consumers.  It's a beachhead for a pointless middleman.  But an enormously successful one.  One can hope that TiVo's failure (or at least, their seemingly eternal state of almost-failure) is unique to their own incompetence, and that the market really could support PVRs independant of the cable companies.  But I wouldn't count on it.

It occurs to me that all I've done is talk about all the reasons why on-demand isn't likely to happen, and not actually address the issue of how things would change if it did.  The question is not entirely moot, as it might offer insight which makes the on-demand world seem more likely if we know what value it offers.  But that is now looking like the subject of another post.