These days, TV as we’ve known it is facing a confusing time. After a long, comfortable, monogamous relationship between cable and satellite providers and the living room, the Internet has come at the concept of TV in full force. A rush of power has been handed back to the consumer.Though television has existed for well under a century, its mark on culture and society is indelible and undeniable. Last week, we described how TV got to where it is today: by traveling a winding road of antennas, black and white broadcasts, news and game shows, broadcast formats, reels, and remotes.
Unease pervades most of what is happening with regard to video content, from the hardware we use to watch it to the services we pay to access it—if we pay for services at all. The power balance has been disrupted, and there is no clear resolution in sight.
The screens, in a slow fade
After circling the rows of glowing HDTVs and their massive price tags for years, customers finally started to buy into the new HD sets in droves seven or eight years ago. Today homes are saturated with them, and we can’t get them big enough.
Plasma TVs reigned in quality for a long time, especially at larger sizes. This was largely because it was impossible to make an affordable LCD much bigger than 40 inches. Now plasma is fading into the background a bit as increasingly massive LED-powered LCD TVs take over stands, walls, and shelves.
Though large LCD screens have become feasible, they aren’t growing heavier. The LED construction may carry a significant price premium over standard LCDs, but it allows the panels to be remarkably thin, to the tune of a couple of inches.
This isn't to say plasma doesn’t still have its place, although negative impressions from burn-in trailed it for many years (in modern sets, this is mostly a non-issue). Certain plasma sets can still achieve better color balance and black levels than many LCDs, and plasma prices have come down over the years.
OLED TVs are likely the next big thing on the hardware horizon. At present, they’re in the price range of most advanced medical procedures—LG’s 55-inch model debuted for $12,000 in January. But with those hefty price tags come unprecedented thinness. OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes) work by emitting light when a current is passed through them, obviating the need for a backlight. Each pixel in an OLED screen is a diode. Because achieving black is as simple as turning the right pixels off completely rather than selectively dimming the backlight, an OLED can achieve black much more easily than an LCD or LED TV can.
OLED screens are also more flexible, which gives us sets like the weird curved panel from Samsung we saw at CES. It’s an attempt to achieve a pseudo-IMAX-like effect. While it doesn’t work completely on this scale, massive, curved screens (i.e., one continuous IMAX screen) could be technically feasible.
We can't talk about where TVs are now without touching on the relative abomination that has been 3D TV. Consumer 3D TVs started to enter the market around three years ago to some initial excitement. But even as the sets progressed from requiring viewers to wear glasses to 3D effects you could see without headgear, the feature has failed. It hasn't created a renaissance of compelling content; it hasn't convinced anyone it’s an essential feature. 3D remains a gimmick.
That said, 3D comes standard on many TVs now. If customers are pursuing a new set, they are likely to get it whether they want it or not. It’s hard to see the feature as anything more than an add-on that was an attempt to revive TV sales and drive customers back into stores once the surge of HD sales died down (that it requires a whole new type of content helps TV and movie creators, too). 3D didn’t capture much attention, but cranking up the resolution again may reignite buying interest where 3D failed.
TVs are about to see their second significant resolution bump in history, from “HD” (720-1080p) to “Ultra HD” (4K-8K). 4K, which is actually 2160p, and 8K, which is 4320p, came out in force at CES this past year, with many a demo reel showing off extra-crisp content on the high-resolution screens.
At present, these sets still suffer from the same issue that HD did at its outset over a decade ago: they look great, but there's no content to put on them. A few companies have stepped up to offer partnerships for 4K content, but it’s hardly a fast-moving trend. 4K will be a particularly difficult hurdle for streaming content, in terms of working against connection speeds and the few bandwidth caps that have managed to make it into certain service contracts.
But even as TVs have tightened their act and slimmed down like every nerd transformation preceding a high school reunion, our consciousness is turning slightly away. This is thanks to the Internet and the more natural home of Internet programming: our computers.
There seem to be ten mentions of cable cutters for every cable cutter that actually exists, but TVs as an appliance could start to suffer as a result of the shift from traditional cable- and physical-media-fueled consumption. It’s far more work (and money) for the average would-be sitcom watcher to figure out how to get Netflix or Hulu or Redbox or a TV channel’s proprietary site from their computer to the big screen than it is to just sit down and watch it on their monitor.
And that is really where TVs sit on their long journey: they’ve gone from the end destination, containing a tuner, to a means—a monitor for everything else we can plug into it.
Smart TV: not yet smart enough
But some manufacturers are not too keen to accept this fate. Companies like LG and Samsung have begun working up smart TV interfaces to bring a lot of functionality back to the TV set itself. This includes programming guides, browsers, social media interfaces, and all manner of inputs (gestures, voice, and new remotes with touchpads).
These manufacturers seem reluctant to lose their active place in content consumption, eager to bring something else to the equation other than being a blank slate for the Internet and every other content provider to doodle on.
Google TV attempted to make a strong entry as a smart TV platform that manufacturers could pair with their sets. While LG continues to carry the Google TV torch and announced a few models at CES, companies like Vizio, Hisense, and Sony have more or less abandoned the project. Samsung, which was initially on board with Google TV, is now pursuing its own proprietary smart TV interface.
We can hardly stand by the 20-some button remote as the premier way to interact with your TV. But if its control scheme is too minimal and makes it too hard to talk to the TV, smart TV interfaces make it too easy. Is it any better to page through content by scrolling on a touchpad or speaking “next page” into a microphone? Is it easier to change the channel by pressing a button or using a gesture? Smart TVs offer so many options that it seems easier to not engage with their many new features and keep slogging away with the buttons on the remote in the laggy program guide.
The old guard: cable and satellite pick up their swords
Two decades ago, a TV in the living room with a cable box sitting underneath it was a natural sight. If you owned a TV that wasn’t used primarily for cable, you were either a dedicated film buff or satisfied with antenna channels. You were also unusual—at best, we approached you with caution and didn’t dare invite you over to watch The Wonder Years.
Now, that picture has been deformed. Giant cable and satellite providers like Comcast, Time Warner, Dish Network, DirectTV, and Cox have long carried a lot of clout and gotten away with charging high prices for access to their service. Lately, customers can expect a bundled cable and Internet access package to cost on the order of $90-100 per month. As attitudes toward media access have shifted, these cable providers had to stop resting on their pokey cable boxes and inscrutable, difficult-to-use program guides and come up with some new services to offer their customers.
Dish has delighted customers and angered networks with its Hopper service, which records all primetime on the four major network channels automatically. A second service, called AutoHop, allows viewers to watch this content without commercials. Dish also offers integration with Slingbox, allowing customers to view their recorded content or live Dish subscription via a Web interface.
Comcast announced a cloud-based storage set-top box called the X1, which offered 500GB of storage as well as smart-TV-like integration with social media accounts on Twitter, Pandora, and Facebook and recommended programming. The company plans to roll out an update to the platform in the form of X2, which will add a programming guide that functions more like a website, voice input, and weather and traffic apps.
Time Warner also plans to update its set-top boxes with more personalized experiences and recommended programming. But cable providers are far behind more Web-based services in this regard. By this point, many of those Web offerings have put years of work into features, algorithms, and processes that are focused on understanding their customers.
The Internet draws near
Aereo has hit closest to home for cable. It's a service that costs around $8 a month and offers live broadcasts of antenna channels as well as DVR service and a Web interface that is accessible from multiple devices. Broadcast networks have tripped over one another trying to ensnare Aereo in some legal trap other another, and Aereo has so far gracefully slipped away from each one. It's been so impenetrable that Time Warner is considering joining its ranks if Aereo can best the networks for good in court.
Shifting further away from the live spectrum, there are services that feed off of cable's real goods: TV shows offered not in the prix fixe style of broadcast but as an all-you-eat buffet of whole seasons, where the cost is only a few dollars a plate. More than a few young people approach this setup in the style of Uncle Eddie in National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation.
HBO is one of these services straining at its cable shackles. It's odd considering that service-wise, HBO is the princess in the highest room of the tallest tower to the cable subscriber's prince. With the introduction of the HBO Go streaming catalog, the tower is as high as ever, but HBO has built an exclusive elevator. And everyone is sharing the key.
HBO Go doesn't make everything the channel has created available at all times, but a good portion of its back catalog is there. This means anyone who is traditional enough to maintain not only a cable subscription but an HBO add-on as well is likely to see their HBO Go account pillaged by friends, friends of friends, neighbors, co-workers, children, pizza deliverymen, particularly savvy passersby, and ex-girlfriends and boyfriends who are no longer on speaking terms but damned if they'll give up the last season of The Wire over a broken heart.
Hulu, particularly its plus tier, comes at streaming in a way that’s deferential to the TV status quo. The service offers a huge back catalog of recent, old, and retro TV shows for subscribers to peruse. But without the pay subscription, the options can be a little limited—some shows are posted immediately but only the most recent handful are available, some are posted on a 30-day delay. Since Hulu is a joint venture between actual TV networks with NBC and News Corp involved, there is significant effort to prevent the service from encroaching too much on live TV’s territory.
On the far end of the streaming spectrum, there’s good old Netflix. Until recently, Netflix and of-the-moment TV content had virtually nothing to do with each other. The Watch Instantly service was more for movies than anything else. Now, Netflix tends to post past seasons of shows currently in progress, especially in the few weeks before a new season begins to air live. This process stirs up and revives interest in shows that failed to capture interest in their first airing, winning new fans and driving the shows on into new seasons (Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan credited streaming with the show’s late-stage success).
Netflix has also begun to produce TV seasons of its own, including House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, and a revival of Arrested Development. While reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, overwhelmingly negative, and decidedly mixed, respectively, a stable of original content makes Netflix less dependent on contracts with content owners and makes it a more compelling investment for customers.
Amazon, likewise, has been developing its own original series. The company is being much more cautious, publicly testing a handful of pilots before choosing which ones to produce. But going forward, this process could help keep the program nimble.
Amazon Prime Instant Video service dabbles much more heavily in individual pay-to-play content than some of its competitors, charging money to rent or buy some titles and making others free to stream. That, on top of the $79 subscription, can make Amazon's service a little hard to stomach.
In that sense, Prime is closely related to iTunes, which offers no content for streaming at all, only pay-to-play downloads sometimes bundled as seasons or groups of movies. But iTunes has also offered the timeliest version of non-TV content access with its season passes, which make certain TV show’s episodes available the morning after they air. With iTunes, we’ve completed the TV circle of life: digital, online content mimicking live TV without being live TV.
The boxes down below
While Web TV services live in large part on the Internet, there is no shortage of ways for them to make the jump to the big screen in the living room. Standalone, single-purpose boxes have made successful entries alongside other consoles that have been repurposed with video content in mind.
Boxes like those from Roku (starting at $49) and Apple ($99) act as vectors for other services—Hulu and Amazon Prime Instant Video in Roku’s case, or just iTunes in Apple’s. And these are fairly inexpensive. While boxes haven’t caught on in a major way or led a huge population of customers astray from the cable boxes they know and love, they present alternatives to a dedicated HTPC or a more advanced networked setup.
Gaming consoles like the XBox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii came from behind to offer some of the most popular video streaming vectors in use. Both have access to Netflix and offer their own branded content as well, though Xbox requires a $60/year Gold subscription to stream video, which is hard to justify for that purpose alone. Looking forward, Microsoft has yet to make clear whether its next-gen console will charge anything to access its cable pass-through or its exclusive content.
For many households, these consoles also fill in as physical media players, a slightly decaying method of accessing content. The PS3 fills in for Blu-ray while the XBox 360 allows DVDs.
There are plenty of dedicated players for these formats still on the market. Heck, even VCRs are around. But as media becomes increasingly digital and distributed via subscription rather than ownership, these peripherals are losing their footholds in the market.
It is a dark time for the Rebellion…
While every aspect of TV as we’ve known it is undergoing rapid change, it remains an embattled space. The old powerhouses remain—hardware makers, cable providers, and networks are variably set in their ways, evidenced by the lawsuits over Aereo and Dish’s Hopper. They also struggle to adapt, in the case of Hulu and smart TV. While they’re neither taking this phase lying down nor strictly litigating over innovating, many of their actions seem motivated by protecting the status quo rather than letting it evolve.
By contrast, the Internet and new companies, services, and structures have sprung up to rework TV, fixing what has long been broke—the imposition of a schedule versus at-will viewing (on Netflix, iTunes, or Hulu), overcharging for access (many services are only a few dollars a month), and even slightly democratizing the TV creation process away from huge TV studios (Netflix’s original series, Amazon’s Prime Instant Video original series program).
Next, we’ll take a look at what’s to come—how the TV dust will settle between the Internet and old media, what devices we’ll be watching on, and how they’ll interact with one another. Shall we say, stay tuned?