The Impending Irrelevance of Television

Let’s ignore television for a moment.

In fact, let’s just pretend it never existed.

This exercise isn’t about blocking out the painful hours you may have spent watching reruns of Miami Vice or Roseanne.

It’s really to help us clear our minds in an effort to better understand the future of video-based media.

A lot of people call it the “next generation” of television. But I’m not a fan of that term.

To frame video-based media’s future in terms of its past endangers its potential.

So let’s agree that we’ll shed words like “network”, “channel”, and “broadcaster”.

I’m sure we can all accept that the concept of the “commercial” is pretty much done-for.

And as far as a “schedule” goes, that stop-gap technology called the personal video recorder proves that the only timeline we’re willing to live by is our own.

Before we go too far into dismissing the world’s favourite form of mental junk food, it might help to take a peek at television’s origins.

The term itself is a combination of the Greek word tele, for distant, and the Latin word vision, for seeing.

It was coined in 1928 by John Baird, a Scotsman generally credited with the invention of the medium.

Initially dismissed as a fad, television gained commercial traction when Germany’s Nazi government broadcast the 1936 Summer Olympics live to the public in Berlin and Leipzig.

With roots like that, television naturally evolved to become a powerhouse form of media that oligarchies of all shapes and sizes have learned to leverage for their own interests.

Strictly controlled by the few and consumed by the many, it is arguably the greatest vehicle of propaganda in history.

But, of course, it has to be. The medium’s complex combination of extreme technical, financial, and political constraints forces it into a role of servitude.

And therein lies traditional television’s fundamental problem: it exists to serve the interests of its makers.

Television is a medium designed to ensure that its consumers see and believe what government and broadcasters demand that they see and believe.

It doesn’t have to be that way any more, though.

Empowering technologies are finally maturing to the point that control over the production and broad distribution can effectively move outside of television’s established channels.

Rather than one very expensive communal screen, which was typical for the first 70-odd years of television’s life, we already have multiple screens of a variety of sizes that provide a combination of personal and shared video experiences.

In other words, there are a lot of different ways to deliver and access video media content.

Instead of an expensive collection of production technologies that are available exclusively to dedicated studios and production firms, we all have unprecedented access to an affordable array of high-quality cameras, sound equipment, and software.

In other words, anyone can afford to produce quality content.

And rather than the narrow, linear channel-based broadcast system that’s subject to expensive licensing and obtuse corporate and government management, the wide-open, generally unmanaged internet offers almost unlimited methods of distribution.

In other words, anyone can share content without regulation or taxation.

And, therefore, anyone can access it (outside of China, anyway). Emerging set-top boxes like the Boxee Box will enable this end of the evolution.

That last point is really the only thing keeping traditional television alive: licensing and regulation.

Government and business work hard to control the flow of video media information. And the ever-faithful last-mile cable and satellite providers kowtow to both entities, dutifully limiting what you or I can watch.

But not for long.

Napster proved people want music on their own terms.

It took a while, but Apple took the message of Napster to heart. And iTunes is now the largest distributor of music on earth.

BitTorrent has proven that people likewise want access to video media without restriction.

Who will best learn from BitTorrrent is still an open question.

But this student will define the next generation of video-based media.

Television is held back by its own history, incapable of giving up the control that it is accustomed to.

Which is why I say we just cut it loose and move forward. If the studios, broadcasters, governments, and last-mile providers don’t want to listen to the demands of us humble consumers then, well, screw ‘em.

I’m willing to buy into whatever model can deliver a broad array of reasonably-priced, fresh video-media content that I’m actually interested in, whenever and wherever is most convenient for me.

And I can say with absolute certainty that billions of people around the world feel exactly the same way.

So, somebody, please kill television already and launch us into a new era. We’re waiting…

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 15, 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Impending Irrelevance of Television

  1. Of course Andrew, but the last mile providers are also hip – if not neck – deep into the ability to provide us with our Internet connections.

    It’s been well proven that Coaxial Cable is one of the better means for internet connections (bested only by Fibre Optics, but who really buys one of those connections for residential use?) and Cable is reaping pretty good rewards from that connection for selling Television.

    If the TV went away, what sort of price would we then have to pay for our Internet connection?

    • Sorry, Jon, but I don’t buy for a minute that content subsidizes connectivity to any significant degree.

      And, even if it did, there’s nothing preventing a last-mile provider from modifying their business model so that they could facilitate a broader, internet-based method of revenue collection.

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