In Defense of Broadcast Television

Technology has radically changed how we consume video, and how we will consume it in the future. Though much of the current landscape still reflects the cable television paradigm that became mainstream in the 80s and 90s, we are fast approaching a critical point that will establish the new paradigm going forward, as on-demand streaming of TV shows becomes more and more popular. The Internet has blown the “thousand channels” once promised by cable out of the water with a seemingly limitless selection of video, all waiting for you whenever you want. Soon, your television and cable box could be replaced by a computer that can pull up shows from the Internet, rendering any older concept of the “television” obsolete.

Yet another aspect of technology may in some ways shake up the landscape even more, if only in how it shakes up our definition of a computer itself. This is the rise of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, devices that connect to the same Internet as more conventional computers even if they do so in ways that present themselves differently to the end user. There may not be any distinction between TV and Internet in the future, but these devices are counting on it, because they have no way to connect to cable TV other than by using the Internet as an intermediary. And if the Internet itself changes when we consume content, mobile devices change where we consume content. Ironically, this shift could make the question of “when” less relevant by making sure you’re never unable to catch your shows when they’re on (unless perhaps you’re behind the wheel of a car). Perhaps partly because of this, for the moment the consumption of content on mobile devices reflects the current cable television paradigm even more than the general landscape, with cable companies embracing the future they call “TV Everywhere” where any channel you can watch at home you can watch on your smartphone, tablet, or computer – if you “authenticate” with your cable provider.

The notion that in the future, there will be people that get all their video off the Internet in some way should give one pause, raising the question of what the implications are on a more basic level. What sort of infrastructure are we building for the consumption of video, and is it the right tool for all the jobs we might end up asking it to do?

Consider what happens when you watch a video over the Internet. Your computer (or phone, or tablet) sends a message that it’d like to watch a certain video, which the ISP (or wireless carrier) relays to the server on the other end. The server sends the video back through the network to the ISP, which delivers it to your computer. If someone else wants to watch the same video at the same time, specifically a streaming video showing something happening live, even if they’re on the same ISP or wireless carrier, they go through the entire process over again: their computer indicates that they’d like to watch a video, and the server on the other end sends it back to them. Not only the server on the other end, but even the ISP in the middle, has to deliver the stream to each of you individually; you can’t piggyback off the other guy. In effect, if a million people are watching the same thing, they’re effectively watching it on a million different “channels”.

This helps explain why NBC’s streaming coverage of the 2012 London Olympics ran into so many problems with just a million people watching at most (could you imagine if everyone who wanted to watch the Super Bowl wanted to watch it this way?), and why ESPN is reportedly trying to get wireless providers to exempt their WatchESPN service from data caps. The Internet is good at delivering a large amount of content to a few people each, but not so good at delivering a small amount of content to a lot of people each. That is the strength of over-the-air broadcasting, and admittedly linear cable television as well, and it’s a strength that shouldn’t be overlooked, even in areas beyond video; imagine if your device, whatever it is, was capable of passively receiving data from a wireless provider, broadcast station, or cable company, without specifically asking for it. A broadcast station can send out a single signal from a single antenna, and that signal can be seen by anyone with an antenna capable of picking it up; a cable company similarly sends the same signal across all its pipes, and your cable box simply tunes into the sliver you want (though cable companies have increasingly shown interest in “switched-broadcast” technologies that switch out a single sliver when you change channels).

It may seem as though all this means is that the Internet will never eclipse the existing linear television infrastructure, but the other principle once upheld by broadcast television, that anyone with the proper equipment can tune in for free, is one worth preserving even if the majority of people have been willing to pay for more options; the state of sports, which probably makes up the majority of this sort of live event, should serve to underscore that. If anything, the Internet seems to me to be more of a threat to cable than to broadcast. When you look at everything out there on cable, very little of what’s out there consists of the sort of live event people wouldn’t be willing to watch on their own time later; the Internet holds the potential to absorb most of the promise of choice cable once offered. If the demand for traditional linear television is more limited, if it reaches a level broadcast can fulfill on its own, cable television, not broadcast, becomes a relic of times gone by, squeezed out by the double whammy of the Internet and a resurgent broadcast.

Broadcasting, however, has not really effectively competed with the Internet. The digital television standard America finished transitioning to in 2009 had a number of flaws, both in and of itself and in the manner in which it was implemented, but perhaps the most critical was that it failed to anticipate the magnitude of the advent of mobile devices, devised as it was in the early 90s and with implementation beginning in the early 2000s, years before the birth of the iPhone. It was woefully ineffective at being received by anything but a traditional, stationary television set. The industry has responded by adopting a modification that allows broadcasters to transmit a second, low-resolution feed that can overcome interference, but it’s a kludge to overcome the deficiency of the original standard in the first place, and it says a lot that you probably haven’t heard of it or any of its implementations – with the end result that ABC has rolled out a separate app that allows users of mobile devices to watch the programming of participating stations over the Internet… but only – say it with me now – if you authenticate with a participating cable provider, an absurd outcome that results from broadcast stations attempting to play the cable networks’ own game by acquiring “retransmission consent” fees from cable companies, resulting in the seeming paradox that over-the-air broadcast stations would seemingly prefer that people not consume their content over the air.

In an age where this paradox has reached the seemingly inevitable conclusion of News Corporation COO Chase Carey’s threat to make most of the Fox network’s most valuable programming cable-only if anything happens to cripple Fox stations’ retransmission consent leverage, an age where, with only the ever-powerless and ignorant consumer seemingly left to defend the technology of broadcast, the FCC seems to be proceeding full-steam ahead to reclaim vast amounts of broadcast television spectrum on behalf of big wireless companies that don’t need it, it’s important not to lose sight of the important role the technology of broadcasting can serve in the video landscape of the future.

10 Trackbacks

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