“The future isn’t plugging little set-top boxes into TVs. So what next?”

FT Digital Media Conference 2013 logoThe final session at the recent FT Digital Media conference was dedicated to unpicking the future of TV. The event had started the day previously with Jeff Bewkes making the bold claim that “Television was taking over the internet”, rather than the other way around, so this made for a fascinating book-end.

Avner Ronen of Boxee contentiously said that calling the TV “the first screen” was misleading, as the first screen was now in our pockets or lying on the coffee table. Some people see second screen activity as “a distraction”, but he preferred to think of it as multi-tasking. Great content will continue to be in demand, he said, and people will continue to value that, but how it gets to your screen is completely changing. This is because, he observed, a whole bunch of things are changing at the same time — not just distribution, but the funding of production via Kickstarter and the entry into the market of players like Netflix making original content.

Zeebox’s Anthony Rose explained that the way that current demand is created for consumption, through the roles of the scheduler and the construct of channels, was unbundling. He envisages a future where something like your smartphone becomes the gateway to great content, whether it is recommended by a reviewer, a broadcaster, a content producer like Endemol, a trusted blog, or based on what friends have been watching. You’ll be able to start watching on that screen if you are out and about, or, if you are at home, use the device to stream the content to your giant TV. You won’t know or care whether it is coming over the air or down the phone line.

When video was first on the web, he reminded us, it was crude and low quality in comparison the what we could get on our “proper” screens. Now, iPlayer has better compression rates than Freeview, and services like YouTube HD exist. I must confess that in an era of SmartTV and an ethernet cable going into the back of my TV at home, it felt incredibly archaic to be explaining to my three year old the other day that the bloody great big dish strapped to the side of our house picks up pictures. And in fact, a lot of the time now I’m — shhhhhhhh — watching things stored on a USB key plugged into the back of the screen.

VEVO’s Rio Caraeff described how mobile and IPTV was taking over viewing. When they launched in 2009 100% of their streams were to desktop through the browser. 18 months later 10% of streams were on mobile devices. Now, he said, in the last 6 months, over 51% of streams in the US had been to either a mobile or a TV. They’ve taken the interesting step of merging their mobile and their TV app product teams. They are still making distinct product lines, he said, but they need to be products that are aware of each other in order to provide a consistent experience.

Rio agreed with Anthony about the phone being the future. “I think your set-top box may end up being your phone,” he said. “We will look back and say that was quaint. I don’t think the future is plugging little boxes into a TV.”

Just as it was inevitable the panel would talk about mobile, so it was inevitable they would talk about data. Anthony Rose reminded us that people used to have precious little data about TV consumption — ratings figures are extrapolated from tiny panels. Now, he said, a whole new range of audience measurements were in play, whether it was Netflix knowing everything about the people who had watched “House Of Cards”, or measurements of the social chatter around particular programmes. He described it as “many more sources of ‘truth’ vying to create world views of what has been successful.”

One thing I’ve found amazing to watch during my digital career is how I went from using systems that were basically dumb terminals, to having everything on my PC, to using web-based services which are stored in the cloud and rendered using webfonts, making my browser effectively a dumb terminal again. TV is heading the same way. Or at least should be. Anthony Rose said it was almost obscene to think of people carting these giant electrical goods into landfill every three or four years because their SmartTV hardware was out of date, when all you needed was a big dumb monitor that you could constantly upgrade via software.

He laughed and described as “a short-term engineering problem” something that VEVO’s Rio Caraeff identified — the issue that currently content providers have to negotiate around 15 different protocols of getting content onto TV. Just as Apple or the telcos could be barriers to getting content onto phones, some of the TV hardware manufacturers were crippling their sets with their own proprietary interfaces and gate-keeping antics.

Rio said that we were yet to produce “native” programming for the current interactive age. There is nothing being made today that couldn’t have been put on screen in 1983, no shows that are aware that they are now part of a two-way communication medium. “No TV show knows it is raining in New York, or that it is dark in Abu Dhabi, or that it is me, personally, watching this episode.”

Anthony Rose said there had always been a dream of “participation TV” that went beyond just yelling at the TV. The beauty of tech, he said, was that it allows new ideas to flourish and people to create new forms of content. “Just looking up Wikipedia entries during a show isn’t the future of TV,” he said, “but it is the beginning of the future of TV.”

#FTMedia13 ebook coverThis is one of a series of blog posts about the 2013 FT Digital Media conference. You can download all of my posts about the event as a free ebook for Kindle, iBooks or as a PDF.

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