Streaming TV is heating-up. Amazon looks set to launch its TV box in March, we’re expecting Apple to announce a new Apple TV box in April, and Google is reputed to be not far behind with a Nexus-branded box.
So-called cord-cutting – people who give up their cable TV subscriptions in favor of streaming content over the web – is growing in popularity. Mobile TV viewing on tablets is increasingly common.
All of which makes me wonder whether we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of live TV … ?
I should perhaps declare a personal bias here: I haven’t owned a television for years. Divvying up the property during a divorce, my ex-wife kept the TV set and buying a new one got added somewhere down towards the bottom of my to-do list. Some two years later, I still hadn’t gotten around to it and realised I hadn’t missed it.
It’s not that I don’t watch TV shows. But Netflix and BBC iPlayer give me all the TV I needed, viewing on my laptop or tablet when it’s just me, and hooking the laptop up to a large monitor when I have company.
What began as the somewhat eccentric behaviour of someone who was never much of a TV junkie in the first place seems to be becoming increasingly mainstream. More and more people turn first to VOD services like iTunes, Netflix and Hulu, with live television as a more occasional habit.
Most people are not ready to give up their TV sets altogether, of course. Indeed, the trend is to ever bigger screens. There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that TV manufacturers are increasingly pushing 55- and 65-inch screens at the very same people who also watch TV shows on their tablets, phablets and even smartphones. But that’s kind of the point: people should be able to choose not just what they watch, but where, when & how they watch it.
I also don’t think most are yet willing to give up their TV tuners. Some TV will always be watched live, even if it’s just news and sports. There are also those primetime shows people love to talk about with friends and co-workers the next morning, where if you didn’t watch it live – or at least, later the same evening – you’re left out of the water-cooler conversation.
Indeed, it’s rumored that the new Apple TV box will contain a TV tuner precisely because there is still a role for live TV. But I think that role will be an increasingly small one, with video-on-demand becoming the default option. And live TV doesn’t have to mean delivery via a TV antenna or cable service, of course.
The change I’m suggesting won’t happen overnight. There are three obvious hurdles to overcome.
First, habit and inertia. For the non-tech mass-market, there is comfort and familiarity in continuing to receive their favorite programs from their favorite channels, even if they do record them for later viewing. But that’s no different to any other tech change: the early adopters lead the way, and the mass market follows.
Second, bandwidth. There are also still those whose broadband connections are not yet fast enough to support reliable streaming of HD content – and that’s before we even get started on 4K content. But that’s a problem that will be solved. Google, for example, has big plans for its gigabit Google Fiber service.
Third, and possibly the most challenging of all, the established TV networks. They are both powerful and conservative. Back before time-shifted viewing was common, they dictated what people watched when. These days, they tell us what devices we can use to watch their shows.
But the balance of power is starting to shift, as consumers vote with their wallets. Netflix has demonstrated with House of Cards that you don’t need to be a TV network to have a massively successful TV show. We’ve seen tablet apps appear for offline viewing, albeit mostly only as part of a traditional home-based cable package. But the march is underway.
Which is why I think increasing competition in the TV box field is all to the good, because it’s that competition that creates the marketing campaigns that introduce the technology to mass-market consumers.
Right now, the big TV networks aren’t too worried about what a bunch of tech-heads are doing. But when streaming TV boxes go mainstream, and start making their way into the average Joe’s living room, that’s the point at which streaming TV becomes so popular that even the big TV networks won’t be able to resist.
Right now, consumers commonly fork over $100+ a month for a whole bunch of content they don’t want, just to get the bits they do. The more popular streaming content becomes, the greater the pressure on the networks to offer us the freedom to pick and choose the content we actually want, in the formats we want it, paying only for that.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the networks will lose out. For every customer paying $120 a month for a particular package, there are probably a dozen more who would pay $10 a month for the shows they want. Let people watch what they want how they want and the dollars will follow.
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