Rowan's World, et Cetera

Channel Zero

by Rowan on 6 September, 2009

A couple of years ago, when IMP (“what later turned out to be the BBC iPlayer”) was still in closed previews, and I started building my over-complicated watch-PC-on-TV setup, I formed the opinion that the future of TV was not “Digital”, it was “Internet-based”. An article in Saturday’s Grauniad suggests that things are still heading in that direction, and reminded me of my prediction that the “channel” as we know it will not be with us much longer.

Glossing over the slight contradiction that TV over the Internet is, necessarily, digital, and the equally all-encompassing vagueness of “internet-based”, it seems to me that far from being the future of TV, digital broadcasting is just an interesting stepping stone, and by the time we get to switchover, the Next Big Thing will already be here. Digital radio, meanwhile, has so little benefit over FM that I’ve never really seen the point (interestingly, the Grauniad agrees with me on that one, too) and is heading to the internet already – think Spotify and last.fm.

At the time, there was a lot of hype over Joost, but when I tried it, it was appalling – pop-up adverts in the middle of your TV screen anyone? The currently US-only Hulu seems to be more respected, but I think something more fundamental has yet to happen, and that is the emergence of a technology, not a service. Ideally, you won’t be using a different player interface depending who’s hosting the video, you’ll just “tune in” with whatever screen you have to hand. And you won’t tune in to a “channel”, either.

The trend seems clear: from a handful of channels a few years ago, to dozens or even hundreds of channels, which have a tenuous individual identity inside larger brands. Do people really notice if something’s on ITV3 rather than ITV2, as long as they can find it in the listings? And then you have the “+1” channels (“Dave” apparently got its name to avoid launching “UKTV G2 +1”), hidden “interactive” channels (like when the BBC show several tennis matches at once), mixed content “HD” channels, and finally the growing range of “video on demand” services – the iPlayer, itvPlayer, etc.

So who needs channels? Why not just have an entire internet full of different TV programs, and watch what you like, when you like?

TV channels do still provide a few services which would need fulfilling in a fully “opened up” Internet TV scenario. Most obviously, they provide the contractual conduit that gets money from advertisers, or subscribers, to the people that actually make the content; and the technical conduit that gets the content onto people’s screens. Someone will always have to have that “broadcaster” role, but they won’t be limited by anything as old-fashioned as “airtime”.

But channels also provide a kind of recommendation service – the fact that something’s showing on a particular channel tells the would-be viewer something about it. With on-demand technology, I see this as the job of aggregators – services who put together “playlists” of recommendations. maybe you just browse the listings and see a review of a new show, by a reviewer you trust. Or maybe you want to sit on your sofa vegging out to cheesy American sitcoms, so you “tune in” to the feed from cheesy-american-sitcoms.tv. And if something comes on you don’t want, just press “skip”…

Not everything’s “on demand” of course – there’s still value in that “did you see the latest episode last night” buzz, and there’s plenty of scope for live TV, and even interactive TV. But the news is already a channel, not a programme, and even if they don’t run for 24-hours a day, there’s no reason The X-Factor and Coronation Street can’t stand on their own, too. With a prominent “broadcast by ITV” logo, obviously.

Obviously, there are plenty of problems to be worked out – not just technical, but legal and financial: who pays who what for the rights to these programmes? do you insist on “broadcasters” using geographic restrictions, or do you just charge for a global licence? for that matter, what rights do end-users get, and how do they pay for them? But given that I live in a Freeview-less area, I’m hopeful that by the time we lose the analogue signal, we just won’t care, because the cutting edge will have moved on…

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