Monday, 3 June 2013

Who Should Fix TV?

TV sucks. It's an expensive, anti-competitive, non-innovative medium, where technology has stagnated and stank for years. Box sets are clunky, user interfaces are slow and subscription services are a rip off. I myself don't own a TV for these reasons, and because I believe alternates are available that make for adequate entertainment. However I do think TV is a problem we need to solve, and one that can be solved. The big screen is the best way to experience great films, family TV shows, perhaps even the Internet (in some ways).

The question then arises around who should fix this. For a long time, eyes have glared at Cupertino, while Steve Jobs continually explained how TV's problem is getting to the market. The market is riddled with boring bureaucrats who maintain their oligopolistic strangle on the consumer. So it seems that even though Apple can deliver a tidy, sharp looking box like the Apple TV, with leading online services like YouTube and Netflix, the lack of premium content holds back any real sense of success. But the iTunes library could be reckoned with. Apple has worked hard in years past to built an impressive catalog of premium content, and the premium relationships that must exist in the offices to uphold it. Developing a more consumer friendly way to deliver these services to customers is not impossible, and Apple might have the right people to do it. My biggest concern for Apple's delivery will be their insistence that the hardware is also their own - it will be a cold day in Hell when Apple offers iTunes through the Xbox One.

I think out best bet is Google, and YouTube. TV is an ads business; it has been for years. Not only have ads funded TV for years, but ads have also delighted viewers and built huge brands in the process. Today's TV landscape is trembling under a serious lack of good ads. The problem was cable and satellite, and the arrival of the quadrillion channel service. Channels narrowed out audiences, and ads no longer appeal to the masses in an engaging way. They do sometimes, but often-times it's better to just scream and shout, so there's some slight trinket of a chance your voice is heard before your recipient inevitably switched focus to another channel in his or her saved list of favourites.

Google is a powerhouse of ad delivery expertise though. They innovate, like YouTube's skippable ads for example. With this product, Google gave a win-win to advertisers and viewers. An advertiser never pays if an ad is skipped before 30s, which means bad ads can get out of your way and doesn't hurt the advertiser's marketing budget. It creates a powerful incentive for the advertiser to use YouTube over other channels. Because Google will lose revenue if you don't watch the ad, it also creates an incentive for them to make sure the person viewing the ad will like it.

Since your TV experience also demands high quality, premium content, YouTube recently introduced an option for paid subscription channels. While these are few and far between, the options are laid out for a big content producer to take a chance on building an online audience here. And the audience is here - YouTube has engagement rates comparable to, if not higher than TV. But this will be a waiting game. The pieces are laid out, but TV production companies seem to have their hearts set on drawing out a stalemate as long as possible. They will neither make the risky bets to try and win market share, nor will they provide competitive online services on their own turf. I hope that just a few key industry players choose to test the waters, and offer show based paid channels, and we will see a big slide in the TV landscape. However I think it is far more likely we will wait for months, while the production value of online entertainment seeps up slowly.

Alongside Google, Netflix and now recently Amazon are also eyeing up their own slice of the pie. I for one am a frequent Netflix user. It mainly suits my needs by being cross platform, avoiding ads all together and providing reasonably quality content, although the offering in Ireland fares poorly to the US. Amazon seems to be building too similar a strategy, and I wonder how sustainable their goals of developing such high production value shows is. I feel that both of these companies fight an uphill struggle to continually build partnerships that we mentioned earlier that Apple had built. They may be better placed making some move similar to Google's, where content producers get the opportunity to deliver content on the platform under their own terms.

I've talked enough now, and I'm tiring at the weight of problems that face all these players. Hardware is something we've not yet touched on much; gaming, sports and movies are others that each bring their own challenges along with them. I'm sure we'll find a more sustainable TV solution, with great on demand services, premium content, and high quality relevant ads that are skippable. This seems almost certain to me. The only question that remains in my mind is whether we'll see a generation of cord cutters rise up before this problem is solved, a large body of users like myself who will find the entry costs too high to ever rejoin the market, and stick to enjoying their entertainment via simpler means, on a laptop in the comfort of my bed.