When I used to speak about technology and media back in the pioneering days of the 90s to crowds of uninspired youth, I used to whip out my palm pilot and point out that in my lifetime, the processing power of the handheld pal pilot was twice as much computer processing used in the Apollo space program. Needless to say that didn’t mean anything to the audience, since the Appollo program was about sending man to the moon, and in the lifespan of my audience, they hadn’t actually scene any manned moon flight program and instead picture space flight as some sort of weird commuter shuttle that occasionally orbits the earth.
But talk to an older generation and they remember the energy that fueled countless dreams of exploring other planets. It was as inevitable as the eventual hover car and single person jet pack. Er, we didn’t get those either, did we? But one staple seems to have transcended time, the box in the living room was going to deliver all that rich visual news right to us, with maybe the promise of 500 channels. Not so fast.
In many ways, this little tid bit from the New York Times illustrates something just as earth shattering about portable computing power portending the smartphone (blackberry or iPhone) reality of today.
As she prepared her daughter for college, Anne Sweeney insisted that a television be among the dorm room accessories.
“Mom, you don’t understand. I don’t need it,” her 19-year-old responded, saying she could watch whatever she wanted on her computer, at no charge.
That flustered Ms. Sweeney, who happens to be the president of theDisney-ABC Television Group.
“You’re going to have a television if I have to nail it to your wall,” she told her daughter, according to comments she made at a Reuters event this week. “You have to have one.”
But she does not, actually. For 60 years, TV could be watched only one way: through the television set. Now, though, millions watch shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” on demand and online on network Web sites like Ms. Sweeney’s ABC.com and on the Internet’s most popular streaming hub, Hulu.com.
The era of the television is over, but you wouldn’t know it from the media corporations who still think there’s value in forcing people to choose their entertainment from a short list of broadcasted stuff. They still hold on to the idea that there’s something fixed and scheduled about when that “show” will be seen. The reality is there’s a whole new generation of audience that has quickly adapted to the choice of when, what and where they will watch. And thus television programming has achieved the portability of another old media format, the book.
When you live in an urban environment, the time between destinations paints the media landscape quite well. People read books and newspapers and iPods and ebooks, chat on phones, listen to music, text, email, chat (even in person) and tap on little keyboards attempting some work productivity. They also watch clips from youtube, downloaded music and soon enough streamed content. We are not far off from the day that an NFL stream of a game can entertain you on a train trip down to Washington DC. TV? Who needs that.
This spring I made a decision to kill me cable TV subscription. With the exception of football, I can’t say I miss it. Everything I want to watch is on DVDs or the Internet. I don’t miss cable news, or the endless stream of commercials. I can get the highlights of the stuff everyone is talking about on youTube. When I want to watch it.
Comcast, the country’s largest cable operator, has already been using its considerable muscle to limit how many shows are available online, lest people think they can cancel their costly cable subscriptions and watch free online. Now the company — which, if the NBC deal passes government muster, will own a piece of the biggest site that threatens to undercut its core business — is looking for ways to charge for ubiquitous access to shows.
The danger for Comcast and all the media broadcast giants, is that if they make it so I can’t see the shows I want online, I may very well choose not to watch at all. And until the advent of live broadcasts at the dawn of the age of the television, there was a whole generation out there that didn’t watch TV. At 320 million devices sold world wide, the iPhone, capable of streaming live broadcasts is just about at that place where a television was in the 1950s. The danger for broadcasters isn’t the free stuff on the internet, it’s the idea that all you need to entertain yourself can be found on a device that goes with you everywhere.