The future of TV is here but please don’t all try it at once
Research The Media's Richard Marks argues that the recent UK launch of Google Chromecast and the fate of BBC Three are part of the future of television delivery, but he questions how quickly that future will arrive. The public Internet itself is just not ready for the world's biggest linear entertainment medium to turn up en masse.
I took part in MediaTel's recent Connected Consumer event with a fairly open mind, but an underlying feeling that the future of television delivery probably lies in software rather than hardware. I left with that view rebooted, which must be the sign of a good event.
So let me explain what has got me (re)thinking, and why I think we are in a classic Catch 22 situation when it comes to the delivery of television content for the foreseeable future.
Firstly, to pursue this argument it's important to define terms - by 'television', I mean television the medium, as opposed to TV sets and screens delivering TV. So if we break the delivery of television down into content, platforms and screens, then my expectation up to now has been that the middle part of the ecosystem - the delivery - would consolidate around wireless broadband, with no need to attach set top boxes to screens.
On the first day of the Connected Consumer Conference we attended an insightful event at iBurbia, with an opportunity to interact with the latest TV delivery technology. At that briefing the penny finally dropped for me. Put simply, the future is here but the Internet itself just isn't ready for it yet.
We love to watch linear TV and, put simply the public Internet just isn't designed to support significant amounts of simultaneous streaming of the same content."
We got to see Google's Chromecast - finally launched in the UK last week - and on the face of it this seemed to be exactly what I though the future would be - content was selected from a provider on a tablet and then punched through to the main TV set using the Chromecast Dongle. Subsequently iPlayer has unveiled an update to coincide with the launch. So surely this is what everyone will do now?
Well no, because everyone can't... at least not at the same time. We love to watch linear TV and, put simply the public Internet just isn't designed to support significant amounts of simultaneous streaming of the same content.
I can get a good service from my little AppleTV box at home, streaming a concert live from SXSW because I am in a tiny minority - most people are accessing TV 'normally' - i.e. not via broadband - thereby leaving enough room for the small minority who do stream linear content. So, the only reason I can stream is because the public Internet can only cope with the (relatively) small amount of viewers doing so and the even smaller amount that access simultaneously.
Some of this is due to the power and capacity of the content providers' own systems, but a lot is also down to the way the public Internet itself is configured to deliver video - it was set up as a peer-to-peer telecoms network, not for multicasting video. Some private networks are configured to cope but not the public Internet.
Even if there was a consensus to create it, we are many years away from a public Internet that is sufficiently configured for multicast to allow the nation to watch its favourite shows together online.
Let's take the example of BBC Three transcending its broadcast form. It makes sense from a strategic point of view. Curating and broadcasting linear TV channels is expensive and will become even more so if 4K is widely adopted.
In the first wave of digital TV, now over a decade ago, the main channel groups pursued a mostly successful strategy of creating a family of channels in order to hang on to their overall share.
BBC Three is the canary in the coalmine. I do expect others to follow, with a net reduction in linear TV channels over the next decade."
In a more mature market broadcasters now need to carefully evaluate the balance between their linear and non-linear VOD offerings and how they release content. In that sense, BBC Three is the canary in the coalmine. I do expect others to follow, with a net reduction in linear TV channels over the next decade.
However, earlier this month in the US, HBO broadcast the final episode of True Detective and - guess what - HBO servers crashed due to the volume of people simultaneously trying to access the live stream via the HBO Go app. So online services are fine, provided the public focuses on non-linear and doesn't all watch the same content at the same time in significant numbers.
Yet television is, and will continue to be, overwhelmingly a linear medium. I am left with the firm impression that as things stand if eight million of us attempted to stream a new episode of Sherlock simultaneously the Internet would die and planes would fall out of the sky.
It certainly explains why Neflix has done a deal with the Comcast cable network in the US which will see their service receiving preferential treatment with less buffering for those who access it via Comcast. This does raise some worrying concerns around the whole concept of 'Net Neutrality' but that is a whole other column.
So where does this leave broadcast television and set-top boxes? Clearly they will be with us for quite a while yet. The infrastructure just isn't there for more than a small proportion of us to receive linear TV directly via broadband ('over-the-top') and we just love watching TV at the same time, it is what makes television the vibrant medium it is.
Meanwhile, whilst the option of migrating from developing and manufacturing set-top boxes and putting satellites in the sky to being an app may seem attractive, the set-top box is a means for companies to 'own the relationship' and to become the 'media server' for the home. The platforms won't be in a hurry to abandon the box.
In terms of the future of television delivery it would appear to be a case of 'steady as she goes'. The logical endpoint does seem to be in sight but there just isn't enough room for everyone at the moment.
So, the future is here, but don't all rush at once and spoil it for the early adopters.
Richard Marks is the director of Research the Media. Find out more here.
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