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Is the Web Finally Ready to Kill Television?

television is dead

Ever since broadband internet hit the mainstream around the turn of the millennium, we have been hearing how the web would spell the end of traditional TV.

Rather than the ‘mere’ 500-channel universe offered by cable or satellite, the web was going to be a never-ending smorgasbord of programming. The future of television was supposed to be the web and it was going to be glorious. It would all stream in stunning high-definition. You would never watch an ad again. And unicorns would come pouring out of your screen in full 3-D. Or not.

As it turned out, people were still pretty committed to their TVs, their couches and regular, mainstream programming. Today, even though broadband penetration is quite high in North America and even though the number of people watching TV on the web is growing rapidly, TV audiences still dwarf those who are watching TV online. To wit, traditional TV still dominates.

But a few recent developments suggest that the web may finally be gearing up to takeover from television, in a way that many would not have foreseen. Rather than people moving away from TV toward the internet, something almost like the inverse is happening: the web is moving toward the TV. Funnily, the reason web-based content delivery is growing in scope and potential is that it’s getting away from computers.

So, it seems as if the web is poised to move into the space once occupied by TV. Or… is it the other way round?

Why the Web Makes TV Go Cry in a Corner

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Though there is a great deal of debate as to the ups and downs of web-based TV, there is no denying that the model of the web, whether streaming or purchasing, offers some clear benefits over that of TV. Here are just a few:

  • There is no fixed schedule. You simply click on what you want, when you want.
  • There are no space limits like the hard drives found on DVRs.
  • Rather than subscribing to specialty channels, one can just buy the shows one wants.
  • Sometimes, obscure or older content is easier to find online.

TV asks you to stick to its own schedule or limitations. TV on the web offers much more freedom. This much is clear.

Why TV Still Rules

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However: when Google recently launched YouTube Leanback – a stripped down version of YouTube that plays videos with little to no user input – it revealed something about the internet: sometimes its greatest strengths are also its most glaring weaknesses.

One of the great benefits of the web is that, as opposed to something like TV or radio – in which the user sits back passively and lets programming come to them – online content is something you have to go out and find yourself. This is often great, as it means that you connect with the content you want to and skip past all the things you dislike.

But the downside of this personalization is that… well, you have to personalize things yourself. Not only does this reduce your chances of randomly stumbling upon something new and interesting, it’s also time-consuming. Rather than the pleasant laziness of kicking back in front of the TV, the web makes you work for your content. This is something that not everyone wants to do. TV offers a more intuitive, straightforward experience that requires almost no technical knowledge – and often allows one not to think very much.

What’s more, it’s physically a more comfortable experience. Rather than sitting at a desk, or putting your notebook on your lap, sitting on a couch in front of a TV with a remote is still the most relaxing, convenient way to go. So TV still rules when it comes to sheer lazy comfort.

Lastly – but perhaps most importantly from a pragmatic standpoint – there’s still much more money in TV. Because of the investment involved and the way a TV holds your attention – and because almost no-one has figured out a lucrative model for online advertising – TV ads still generate far more revenue than online. That is a hurdle that no-one has quite figured out how to clear.

Why The Future of TV on the Web is Not the Web (Or Even TV)

So, the world of professional programming is in a bit of pickle. People are moving online because of clear benefits offered by the web. But they’re also still drawn to the comforts and conveniences of TV. It’s almost like the ideal thing to do would be to mix those things…

And, well, that’s exactly what’s happening. Rather than attempting to replicate TV online or vice versa, it seems that we are now moving toward something like a hybrid model that combines the best of both worlds: the simplicity and convenience of TV with the searchable, customizable, ‘personalizable’ world of the web. At the forefront of this shift are Hulu Plus and GoogleTV.

Hulu Plus seems like it will be well-positioned for this hybrid future, in part because it breaks the ridiculous stranglehold that some content companies have so far held on the distribution of TV. Rather than spending a few bucks for an HD episode, renting an entire season on disc or hoping that the shows you want are on Netflix, Hulu Plus is going to allow you access to entire seasons of legit, primetime shows in HD for 10 bucks a month. That’s huge, because it actually feels like the promise of the web, with quality, professional content like 30 Rock, Arrested Development and The Office (um, the UK version).

But just as importantly, that subscription, instead of being tied to a particular service and device – like cable and your TV(s) – is mobile and portable. Literally. You can use your Xbox or PS3 or Blu-Ray player to watch those shows, but you can also watch them on iPhones, iPads, and Laptops. It also seems quite certain than an Android App will be added to the mix. It’s TV that isn’t chained to your TV, but works in multiple locations. It’s TV in the cloud. This is a big deal.

In a similar vein, it seems GoogleTV is taking the simplicity of TV and melding it with the searchable function and personalized nature of the web. Because it connects to a TV and works in tandem with cable and satellite subscriptions, it maintains the approachable, simple nature of today’s television. But because it adds Google’s search function and gives access to numerous portals for online video, it opens up TV to the kind of content and methods of accessing it that you can only find on the web.

We Come Not to Bury TV, But To Praise It

So is the web ready to kill TV? Nope. Not by a long shot.

No, much more interestingly, what we’re seeing are the behaviors and tools of the web meeting and melding with television. Rather than TV becoming obsolete, it’s that television as a source of entertainment is becoming ‘webified’, while the sometimes overwhelming, tech-y world of the internet is being made a little more like TV.

As fans of entertainment, this seems like a great thing. It means more choice in shows, more choice in how we access those shows and more choice is where we watch them.

However, this new hybrid future does leave us with a number of questions.

  • Will the Hulu Plus model generate enough revenue to not only make it a viable business, but also enough to spur competition in the same space?
  • Will people always be drawn to mainstream programming? Or will the vast choice on the web mean more and more people moving into their own tiny niche worlds of entertainment. To put it simply, will the web make Lost an impossible phenomenon to repeat? Or will it help it?
  • How will the advertising conundrum be solved? Or is there no replacement for the expensive television ad?
  • Are there other solutions beyond this hybrid model that will offer a better experience for consumers?
  • And finally, where are Apple, Microsoft, Sony and other players in this race? Will they have something to rival what Hulu and Google have already laid out?

Hit the comments and let us know what you think.

  1. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since I heard about Google TV. It might be the key factor that would get me interested in TV again. Once I had to become my own bill-payer, I decided to forgo cable tv, knowing that I could easily watch my favorite shows online. The thing is, for the reasons you explained, I stopped watching TV shows altogether. Without the set programming of my favorite TV shows I forgot to look for them online, or got distracted by other things. I also soon realized that watching shows on a small laptop really isn’t the same as relaxing in front of the tv.

    Having something like Hulu Plus or Google TV would seem to be the best of both worlds – customizable internet-like features with the ease of tv-watching.

  2. I think content will determine where people go. I personally don’t watch TV but I do watch a lot of DVDs and the NetFlix online deal. When the web monsters start investing in content like the networks do such as in sports and serial shows, more and more people will take to the web.

    Just like MTV started production companies etc in the past, in the future we will see Hulu and Google making deals with production companies or creating their own.

    And of course the delivery needs to be a bit more seamless, for example Hulu will need to be the home page/channel on an internet capable TV.

    I think Hulu or Google might joint venture with a TV manufacturer to create a seamless internet TV that resides in the same box with a regular and cable tuner, then have the right competitive content and watch it fly.

  3. I think that there will be, without a doubt, some sort of dark horse technology or innovation that takes over for all video content.
    Without the advertising potential, the current media establishment will be unwilling to let go of their hold on content. They will likely put further strangleholds on what content is available legally online and force something new to develop. Meanwhile, the content currently being produced for web only is largely without a revenue stream and will not evolve much further than it has without a larger incentive.
    So, just like every example of trying to predict the future, the answer most certainly lies in something yet to be created or to become widely known. Apple has tried with their Apple TV, Google is trying it now, Hulu, Youtube, and countless other sites are each promoting their method, but it will be something new, either a yet to exist startup or a forthcoming project by a big name.

  4. Real sports fans who can’t afford the cost or hassle of watching games in person will always prefer to watch games live on a TV or on whatever screen they can watch the event on as it happens. More and more sports are migrating to cable viewing only, so sports fans are pretty much stuck with paying for cable until the leagues strike deals with online providers to stream events in real time.

    Sites like Hulu are of little value to sports fans. However, live sporting events integrated with the web to show stats on demand, multiple camera angle selections, and the ability to listen to only the sound on the field instead of annoying play by play announcers? That just makes too much sense.

  5. Don’t count the net out yet.

    I used to work in TV production, but a year ago started preproduction on a TV/Web series. Similar format to TV, but with the intention of releasing it online. The Pilot will begin shooting in the next few months.

    I saw the writing on the wall, and knew that Web channels would appear before the series was finished. Google TV has appeared, so have channels created by hardware vendors like Sony, and I expect more channels will appear.

    There are rumors of other people working on Web TV series, so I expect that there will be a lot of high production value but low cost series appearing when the advertising revenue firms up. Low cost is the key here, as the Web will fragment the already fragmented market further.

  6. The big issue is that changing channels on tv is mere instant. Web tv angles take a little start up time between each channel. A real killer when you just want to be entertained. I for one however like to trawl for the new content so I don’t mind spending hours in a non passive mode searching.

  7. Haven’t owned a TV for the past four years. I don’t waste time with infomercials pay 130 less than I would otherwise.

    My cell phone is all the DSL service I need.. 90 dollars a month covered:

    – Nascar
    – FIFA 2010
    – NFL
    – Netflix
    – Hulu.

    I don’t pay a cable company 100 dollars for premium channels, 20 dollars of for my Satellite radio. 40 dollars of the DSL service

    Remote is taken care off, have an Android app for that.

    So I increased my cellphone bill by 30 dollars and decreased by 160 what I gave the Cable companies (never had a landline, didnt make sense if you do, thats another 30 right there).

    3G service with TMob is 2.8Mbps or better (1.5Mpbs with ATT never worked! 3Mpbs worse, Earthlink did provide a reliable cable service).

    But 130 dollars less a month makes lots of sense. Now if you are family its even better.

    Key thing.. you need an Android phone that can do HotSpot.. thats G1 or better.. cause G1 has had it for over 18 months now.

    Oh yeah, consider the 10 dollars/month of the GPS (Google Navigation).. an Android phone will save you anywhere from 140-170 dollars a month!

    Drop Cable now… its not worth it!

  8. FYI if you use an iPhone you will be paying a LOT for 2GB flow, TMob offers 10GB before they throttle you. And Clear offers unlimited on 4G.

    Clearwire service is unreliable, two 20/month cards with T Mob make more sense and are a LOT faster.

    T mobile could make a killing if they offered unlimited Web no caps for 40 dollars a month. the Would take over all Cable companies if and only if they had a bit of vision. There HSPA+ networks (21mbps) rocks!!!!…

    Sprints WiMax like Clearwire looses connection when ever there is a bit of rain.. used it for a few months. Clearwire support is AWFUL. So you get what you get,,,if you do go that route, be sure to have a back up.

    Oh yeah, and you watch any movie you want when you want.. no need to tape it.. just stream it. Get yourself a 42 or larger screen.

    Cable companies, GPS companies, Telephone landlines and Media companies are doomed, its just a matter of time. Other companies will emerge that will stream video directly and for free, something Media companies don’t understand .. FREE + Advertising is the model that Google based its service on. The Media company that does this will win the Web Entertainment field, no matter how much todays gorillas scream.

  9. Before you can “kill” television you have to define what “television” is – a big screen with a simplistic selection tool, a lean-back viewing experience, network productions with professional actors, directors, studio, etc., simulcast of real time events to millions or billions of people?

    The web opened the door for non-professional video with amateur everything.
    The web has a hypertext selection mode that is predominantly lean-forward.
    The Internet reaches ~2B people on a variety of devices, but it difficult to stream the same video to all of them at once of TCP/IP or UDP.

    The answer is both media and medium will continue to persist and evolve while the term “television” may in fact fade away from our vocabulary.

  10. According to Knowledge Networks, the number of viewers that watch full television shows has tripled since 2006 in the 13 -54 age bracket now running at over 22%. Now that is momentum ! With tv show sites like it’s no wonder.

  11. Craigslist tv has already killed the television. They realized its better to promote on the web than taking to the airwaves. I agree with them too, It is what needs to happen, tv is already overpriced and shoddy in signal! This is an article talking about craigslist tv and what they have done.

  12. I think Google TV is going to be a strong competitor for the traditional TV approach. I also believe companies like Netflix are going to continue to have strong growth. It will be a number of years before the traditional TV systems will be replaced, but when they do the new method to TV will be very interesting. We should be able to get all of our programs and web content on demand and not based on schedule. However, for the next few years we will have to choose between Cable and Satellite TV Systems: Then also Fios, all fiber-optic cables, is going to continue to expand. Currently, it’s only offered in a small percentage of cities. As this becomes more prevalent, then web TV will become a faster and better option. I hope Google TV becomes a reality, because if anyone can do it, then it would be Google.

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