TeleVisions of the future

October 21st, 2010 by

Television by Stewf @ FlickrIn an era where the traditional media industry has struggled, one medium has proven surprisingly resilient. Despite the huge array of entertainment now available, TV is more popular than ever. North Americans spend more time watching television than they spend consuming all other media put together. Nielsen recently found they watch, on average, over five hours a day — a high since it began records in the 1950s.

The reasons for the continued popularity of TV seem to relate to social issues as much as convenience and the quality of the viewing experience. People like to watch shows together and at the same time as their friends see them. Despite attempts from Apple and Microsoft, most people still watch TV the way they always have.

If it only had a brain
Things are changing though. While only a few years ago the amount of video available on the internet was limited, now there is a huge amount, with most major networks offering free content. Hulu, a website that offers shows from three of America’s four big broadcasters, streamed more than 1 billion videos in December 2009.

Even so, for most people the living room TV experience is still based around set programming and advertising. Despite their slim and sexy new appearance, beneath the surface TVs are as dumb as ever. Viewers waste time scrolling for shows that have inevitably just finished and are forced to sit through expensive advertising which they have no interest in. On average, after watching four hours of TV a viewer will see one hour of advertising, which will lead them to spend just $2 on the advertised products.

This may soon change. The Wizard of Google has announced few weeks ago its plan to finally give the television set a brain, seamlessly combining it with the internet. Instead of locking down its product like the wicked witches of Apple and Microsoft, Google TV will be an open-source operating system running on its Android. It has signed deals with TV manufacturers such as Sony and set-top box makers such as Logitech to build TVs that will run on Android.

Rather than scrolling across archaic spreadsheets of TV listings, users will type the name of the desired show into the Google task bar, which will search conventional television signals, saved recordings and the net, including both network re-runs and of course Google sites like YouTube. It will link social networking sites, photo albums and music collections.

Follow the interactive road
While a terrifying threat to networks’ traditional business models, it also presents great opportunity by allowing for the collection of information about viewers and greater interactivity between them and their TV sets. It is a future that the networks have already been moving toward.

BSkyB is already tailoring some advertisements on Sky Player, using its information about where people live. Such targeting will mean that inner-city couples will no longer have to sit through adverts about farm machinery, which they are never going to buy. No one is better at this type of targeting than Google, which also makes you wonder about Google’s “accidental” collection of wifi information in many countries.

It is also an opportunity for broadcasters to move increasingly into the gaming world. BBC Worldwide recently employed the former Electronic Arts executive Robert Nashak to direct its move into gaming and the UK’s Channel 4 has several divisions looking into the crossover opportunities. ESPN has done a deal with Microsoft to make thousands of hours of its content available to owners of the new motion sensing Xbox 360 console. Interactivity will not be limited to gaming, with Al Gore just announcing that his Current TV network will soon introduce Crowdsourced TV. It seems viewers will become producers, and communities will source, distribute and promote professionally curated content.

The future has never looked brighter
With all these changes the future is anyone’s guess. In case you are wondering, here are a few of mine:

With 20 minutes until the 2014 soccer World Cup final between Finland and the USA begins, I decide that I want to watch the 1000th episode of The Simpsons again. No time to sit through adverts, I elect to complete a few quick CAPTCHA-style microtasks for Fox’s crowdsourcing partner Microtask, instead. Afterwards, with the game about to start, rather than make a micropayment to access coverage I decide to recite the details of McDonald’s special World Cup meal deal. To upgrade to 3D coverage, I also say three fillings I would like to see in a Finnish version of a Big Mac. At half time I notice that a few of my friends are also watching the game, so instead of watching Nike’s revised “write the future” advert, I agree to a prompt asking me to like a new running shoe on Facebook. In return I am offered the chance to challenge my friends to an online virtual re-enactment of the last goal.

Before history shatters my technoutopia, I admit there are a few key hurdles to overcome. Importantly enough for the future of TV, is the history of failure. Apple TV, Boxee, Joost, Roku all sounded good in theory. All promised to deliver TV the way people want it, yet in practice no one wanted them (the new Apple TV seems more successful, though). Guessing the future is fun, but only time will tell what the television of the future will look like.