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The TV of the Future Won’t Be a TV at All

May 20, 2013 10:05 AM, By Jason Bovberg


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It’s interesting to fathom how far TV has come in the decades since its inception circa 1940. From furniture-based behemoth to portable lightweight, from black-and-white to color to 3D, from antenna to cable to digital streaming, from standard-definition 4:3 to ultra-high-resolution 16:9, from mono sound to multi-speaker high-def surround sound, from cathode ray tube to plasma/LCD flatscreen, television has moved swiftly from local curiosity to media powerhouse. Its evolution is shaped by many factors, from the movies to live sports to the digital revolution—and now we’re in the midst of another spike in TV evolution. And it could be the biggest spike yet.

I’m talking about nothing less than TV’s evolution away from the TV.

This column is a natural evolution from last month’s installment, “Cutting Cable” in which I talked about considerations to keep in mind when you’re pondering a move away from that long-time method of content delivery, cable television. There’s no question that many people are frustrated by the high prices and voluminous crap that comprise the cable-TV and satellite-TV experience. But there’s a smaller—but growing—subset of people who are evolving past the very notion of set-based TV. To anyone who is enjoying a rich media experience on a tablet device such as the Microsoft Surface or the Apple iPad, that large flatscreen set in the living room is getting less and less use. Such is the case in my house, and in the homes of many of my tech-minded friends.

It’s a convergence of digital subscription services such as Netflix and the rise of ultra-portable computing that’s giving rise to this new mindset. In early 2013, Netflix was the most used app on mobile devices.

And Netflix—in many ways the pioneer of this new model—knows very well that traditional TV viewing is fading away, to be ultimately replaced by Internet TV apps. In a recent report, the company outlined its vision for the future, along with attendant necessity of increasingly faster Internet speeds to fuel the streaming of high-resolution video to a variety of device types. “Eventually, as linear TV is viewed less, the spectrum it now uses on cable and fiber will be reallocated to expanding data transmission. Satellite TV subscribers will be fewer, and mostly be in places where high-speed Internet (cable or fiber) is not available. The importance of high-speed Internet will increase.” (Read more in “Here’s How Netflix Sees the Future of TV.”)

The use of Netflix Instant—as well as Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus, and other similar services, not to mention the ubiquitous YouTube—is exploding on tablets and other smart, portable devices. For many of my peers, such media consumption is the reason they purchased a tablet in the first place. The new home-entertainment paradigm is for a loving couple to enjoy one, two, three, or an entire season’s worth of a TV show’s episodes while lounging in bed at night or over a lazy weekend. The hot term of the moment is “binge watching,” made possible, in many cases, by portable devices. And the phenomenon extends out into the world, with people watching from literally anywhere—on the train, in the car, at the park, on a boat, in the air, in the bathroom. It’s a Dr. Seuss book in the making!

And Netflix, for one, knows exactly what it’s doing. The company endured a rough patch a couple years ago, attracting a lot of bad press by unwisely (and prematurely) splitting its streaming and disc-based businesses, renaming the latter, and hiking prices. But Netflix has surged back into powerhouse mode, showing a clear understanding of the evolving market. Perhaps nothing provides more evidence of that understanding than the company’s investment in the forthcoming revival of Arrested Development, exclusive to Netflix. After testing the waters with ever-more-popular original efforts such as Lilyhammer, House of Cards, and Hemlock Grove, Netflix is changing the game with its highest-profile experiment yet: All 15 episodes of the new Arrested Development will be available immediately upon release, as if purpose-produced for those binge-watchers. (Leave it to Arrested Development to be groundbreaking once again.)

Half-hour to hour episodes are ideal for the small screen of the tablet device, and Netflix knows that too—it’s a sweet spot for that kind of consumption. Just as smartphones are ideal for short YouTube videos, tablets are the perfect home to TV media, and if I may extend the tech outlook from there, our ever-larger physical TV sets are far from “put out to pasture.” Rather, they’re now the perfectly suited platform for longer-form films and live sports. At my home, we now only very rarely watch TV shows on our 52in. flatscreen; the aspect ratio is wrong in most cases, and it just seems like an under-utilization of the viewing area. It’s almost as if our TV sets have evolved away from traditional TV programming and toward the display of content typically reserved for movie houses and stadiums.

Having said all that, we as a tech culture seem to be getting more and more comfortable with longer-form content on smaller and smaller devices—which seems in line with the trajectory of technology in general. Smartphone makers constantly test out just-slightly-larger screen sizes, as if to tempt you to consume three-hour movies on "phablets" (phone and tablet in one) such as the Samsung Galaxy Note.

As I write this, I can glance over at my shelves of TV series on DVD and lament the speed with which that mode of content consumption went out of style. I can’t remember the last time I cracked open one of those sets to watch an episode (or season). It’s just too much work to turn on the TV and the DVD player, and plunk in that disc and find the remote! Heck, even watching broadcast TV series—with DVR, no less—is too much work. Far better to fire up my Surface, click the Netflix app, and choose from a blistering array of new and old TV shows, right at my fingertips. That’s the future, right there: “a blistering array of TV shows, right at your fingertips.” The company that grabs that as its mission statement will rule the media world. Is Netflix using it?



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