Will Internet TV Make Cable and Satellite TV Extinct?

There are two kinds of TV, live and recorded.  Internet TV sites like Hulu have already proven how well they can handle recorded TV shows.  Internet TV even does away with the need for a digital video recorder (DVR).  Think of a show, find it, watch it.  Internet TV like Hulu is even better than broadcast, cable or satellite for sponsors because viewers are required to watch the commercials.  And as long as they have such limited commercials as they do now, I don’t mind watching them.  Otherwise I’ll pay for streaming services like Netflix to be commercial free.

Where Internet TV is weak is for live broadcasts, like for sports and 24/7 news.  The infrastructure of cable and satellite systems have far more bandwidth for handling live television.  That won’t always be so, because I’m sure some kind of broadcast Internet technology will emerge to solve that problem and people will be watching live TV on their iPhones, iPads, netbooks, notebooks, desktops, HTPCs and Internet TV sets.

Digital technology ate the music industry, and is about to eat the book, newspaper, magazine and television industries.  I gave up cable TV months ago and for recorded shows I’m in hog heaven by using the Internet TV, which includes streaming Netflix.  I also supplement by viewing diet with snail-mail Netflix discs, but I see where that habit could be phased out too.  The only reason to get a disc now is for the picture quality of Bluray.  Future bandwidth will wipe out that technology too.

Owning music CDs and video DVDs seem so pointless now.  I wonder how that’s going to impact the economy and effect the entertainment business.  It also makes me wonder about my efforts of building an easy to use HTPC.  I’m struggling to get perfect Bluray playback through my HTPC computer, wondering if I should spend $80 for better software, knowing full well in the not too distance future I’ll phase out Bluray too.  The HTPC has phased out the LG BD390 Bluray player I bought just last year, and an Internet TV set could phase out my HTPC.

biggerthanlife

Last night my friend Janis had us watch Bigger Than Life on Bluray because NPR had praised this old James Mason movie so highly.  The flick wasn’t very entertaining, but it was fascinating.  The Bluray presentation of this 1956 CinemaScope production was stunning in 1080p high definition, showing intricate shadows and vivid colors.  Internet TV and streaming Netflix can’t provide that kind of resolution right now, but I imagine it will before 2015.

Technology is moving so fast that we buy devices we want to throw away in a year or two.  Growing up my folks wanted appliances and TVs that would last 15 years.  I remember Ma Bell phones lasting over twenty years.  I’ve had my 52” inch high definition TV for only three years and I’m already lusting for a new set.  Will technology ever settle down again so we can buy something that will last a generation?  I think it might.  Of course it will be terrible for the economy, but I can imagine TV technology that would satisfy me and take the ants out of my pants to have something better.

My perfect TV will still be a 1080p HDTV like we have today.  I’m pretty sure we can go decades without changing the broadcast standards again.  It will have a digital tuner to handle over-the-air broadcasts (in case the net goes down) and an Ethernet jack and WiFi for Internet TV.  It will have two removable bays.  One for a computer brain that can be upgraded, and another for a SSD hard drive.  As Internet TV is perfected the need for a local DVR will be diminished.  That will also be true for an upgradable CPU.  There will be no cable or satellite TV.  Everything will come to us by TCP/IP.  Broadcast will remain for the poor and for when the Internet fails.  Cable and satellite TV will go the way of the record store.  I also assume all Internet access will be wireless, but it will take 5-10 years to phase out wires.  Now that doesn’t mean cable and satellite companies will go under.  I expect them to buy into the Internet TV revolution.  I do get my internet access from Comcast.

Most people will think I’m crazy by predicting the extinction of cable and satellite TV.  They can’t picture living without all that choice.  That’s because of the channel switching mindset.  We have always thought of what’s on TV by flipping through the channels, even though very little TV is live.  Most of TV is recorded, and we fake immediate diversity by offering 200 concurrent channels to watch.  Eventually the only channels to watch will be live, because other technology makes it easier to find recorded shows ourselves.

Live TV will go through a renaissance.  Cable and satellite TV systems are still the best technology for live TV, and they will hang on to their audiences for another ten or twenty years as Internet broadcast TV is perfected.  However, guerrilla TV is emerging on the net, and micro audiences are evolving.  For the big networks, how many Today like morning shows will we need for live TV?  How many channels to promote sports?  How many to 24/7 talking head news and reality shows do we need?  How many live PBS networks will we need?  Will audience gather around central networks or seek out specialized Internet broadcasters catering to their personal interests?

Ultimately, how much TV really needs to be live?  Even 24/7 news shows spend a lot of time repeating themselves.  Live TV is leisurely.   The hours of the Today show are filled with just minutes of quality content, most of the time is fluff and commercials.  And if an opera is filmed live for PBS does it really need to be seen live?  Survivor and Amazing Race would be tedious if live.

When the flipping the channels metaphor dies out, and library checkout metaphor gains popularity, TV viewing will change.  People love football, war and car chases live, but will even that change too?  If you were sitting with you iPad killing some time, will you think, “Hey let’s watch the game in Miami,” or will you want to play a game or watch something recorded?   I can easily imagine sites of “WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW!” start showing up, listing thousands of events going on around the world.  TCP/IP technology will work better to provide that kind of service than cable or satellite.

Until you play with Internet TV you won’t understand what I’m saying.  You’ve got to sleep with the pods or drink the Kool-Aid to buy in.  Start with streaming Netflix and Hulu.

And if people love cell phones, Facebook and Twitter to stay in constant contact won’t they love live TV from their friends.  Instead of watching the crew of the Today show have fun, why not video link all your friends and create your own morning show?  And the emergence of spy networks will also change viewing habits.  If every daycare and classroom had web cams, wouldn’t parents spend more time watching them?  Won’t all the web cams in the world grabbing eyeballs destroy the audiences of the 200 channels of national networks?

We can’t predict the future.  Growing up in the 1960s I never imagined anything like the Internet.  All I can predict is change and more of it.  But I’m also going to predict that once the Internet and digital upheaval is over, we might settle down to a slower pace of change.  Well, until artificial intelligence arrives or we make SETI contact with distant civilizations.

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JWH – 4/10/10

Roku HD – The Future of TV

I bought my wife a Roku HD for Christmas.  She works out of town and wanted Netflix streaming for her little apartment.  Before the Roku HD left the house forever, I thought I’d play with it and see how it compared to my Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 Blu-Ray player.  In a way, I wished I hadn’t, because now I hate my LG BD390 Netflix streaming.

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bought the LG BD390.  I spent $100 over my budget to get the highly rated LG BD390 because it had wireless-N built in and Netflix.  The BD390 is great for playing Blu-Ray discs, but has been less than spectacular for Netflix and wireless.  I would have been better off buying a basic Blu-Ray player and the Roku HD, spending the same as I had on the LG BD390.  But I might not even agree with this decision by next Christmas.

I hooked up both the Roku HD and BD390 to the same wired Ethernet.  The BD390 has never liked my Linksys WRT160N version 1 router – but that’s Cisco’s fault.  Cisco won’t update the original model of this router and it needs it.  I mention these annoying tribulations because anyone buying network devices to add to their TV need to be prepared for pitfalls and aggravations.  However, even after I hardwired my den, the BD390 would not consistently work well with Netflix.  My internet reception was usually one half of the gauge or a little over.  On rare occasions I got HD reception and things looked fantastic.  I keep waiting for a BD390 update that would tweak its Netflix feature, but so far I’ve been living with average quality Netflix streaming.

I set up the Roku HD, which was a complete snap.  It’s a tiny device, weighing just ounces.  (Here’s a peak inside the older model.)  I’ve been watching an episode of Farscape every night, streamed via Netflix through my BD390, so I decided to look at the next episode on the Roku HD.  I got 4 dot reception, that’s Roku talk for their streaming quality meter, the highest level of streaming.  I was overwhelmed by how much better the image was over the LG.  On the BD390 I assumed the show was old and the visuals were crude.  But no!  On the Roku HD the make-up, costumes, and sets are gorgeous.   And my wife leaves this weekend taking the Roku HD with her!  Bummer.

This morning I got up and played with the Roku Channel Store and found all kinds of extra content (Mediafly, Twit.tv, Revision3, etc.)  Techie shows I love that drives my wife from the room.  I was amazed by how good Internet TV content looked on my 52” HDTV.  Since I’m already planning on building a HTPC that would replace my BD390, I’m now worried that anything I build won’t be equal to the elegant little Roku box.

Now take all of my enthusiasm for the Roku HD with a grain of salt.  Go to the Roku Forums to read about other people’s experiences.  Not everyone is getting 4 dot reception.  Many fight with bad network connections, rebooting Roku boxes, bad updates, etc.  Also, remember, generally only users with a problem come to the forums to begin with, so we don’t know how many people have fantastic out-of-the-box luck like I did.

But I am in trouble.  I don’t want to watch Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 anymore.  It’s a shame that Farscape isn’t on Blu-Ray, but for now I just put the DVDs into my queue and I’ll be networking the show via USPS mail.  I would jump over to Amazon and order another Roku HD, but I want to wait and see if I can build a HTPC that does a better job instead.  The Roku HD box has a very tiny chip to process the Internet video stream, so I’m wondering if a powerful CPU and GPU can do a better job.  Watching the same episode streamed through my computer looks way better than the BD390, but not as good as the Roku HD, but that might be because I’m sitting twenty inches away from the LCD monitor and I’m sitting ten feet from my HDTV.  Like I said, everything is very iffy with Internet TV watching.  Twit.tv looked fantastic blown up to a 52” HDTV via the Roku HD box, but it looks just as great on my computer.

Actually, I’m struck with the overwhelming impression that the Roku HD box foretells the future of TV.  We watched a HD movie over the Roku box and maybe it wasn’t Blu-Ray 1080p quality, but the illusion was damn close.  I gave up Comcast cable to live with over-the-air broadcasts and Netflix and I’ve been very happy.  If I could get all my TV from a little box like the Roku I would.  I’d give up DVDs and Blu-Ray discs too.  In my post about building an HTPC I wanted to reduce my entertainment center from 5 electronic devices connected to my Samsung HD to one. 

If that one device could be something the size of the Roku box that would be even more elegant, but obviously, the solution is to put the little Roku circuit board inside of the TV and have just a TV and sound bar, and even then, why can’t they build a great sound bar into the TV too?  You can see where this is going.  A flat panel on the wall with a power cord and an Ethernet cable.  No HD antenna, cable or satellite cable, and if wireless improved, the future TV wouldn’t even need an Ethernet cable.  While I’m wishing, if they could also take the small circuit board from my Roku SoundBridge M1001 that streams music, and put it inside the TV too, we’d really be living in the future.

In other words, maybe I should hold off on building my HTPC.  By Christmas 2010 or 2011 such a simple elegant TV solution might show up on the market.  There are already TVs out with built-in Internet access, but they are limited.  Obviously, such an Internet TV will bring about a tremendous paradigm change in the TV business.  The Netflix model, of one monthly fee to watch exactly what you want to watch, and only that, is too powerful to ignore.  Why pay big bucks to cable and satellite providers for 250 channels you don’t watch?  Why hassle with HD antennas if the Internet provides better reception.  Why buy DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and mess with storing them when Netflix will do all the work for you?

The Netflix model for video and the Rhapsody model for music should be the standard for the future, but will the content providers allow so many revenue streams to be dammed up?  Will the Roku box change the TV world?  If on-demand streaming content can approach the visual quality of Blu-Ray, why not?

JWH – 12/30/9