Reality Check: Disrupting the TV Industry

There is pessimism, then there is reality. This is the latter. I dream of a revitalized television experience, I'd pay top dollar for it, and I think it will happen... eventually. The major technology media outlets have taken hold of this idea and run with it far beyond reason. You've got business men and women theorizing and then just assuming "the engineers will figure out the details." 

Consider this: the engineering side of it has been figured out for a while - brilliant smooth UIs, voice control, motion sensors, Bluetooth remotes, unified search, all of these exist today. That isn't the problem. There are two major issues where the tech media has praised solutions yet I strongly disagree with their viability; when I say "major" I mean fundamentally damning to the entire notion.

Content Owners Hold the Power

This is no secret. Content owners ultimately hold the power, and there is very little that can change this unless they want it to change. Today, you've got old and closed minded people (not that one implies the other) that are in charge of this content. Without content even the most earth-shattering TV experience doesn't matter. One of the biggest problems is that under the current model, the interests of content owners and new-age content services/distributors are not aligned. They could get aligned and do beautiful things, but this is where the closed-minded factor prevents progress. Once this is cracked this type of press speculation will be valid and welcome. Until then, to suggest this problem has been solved (or isn't a major problem) is click bait at best.

The only glimmer of hope to break free of this has been Netflix. House of Cards is a great example that nontraditional sources with progressive views on technology can disrupt the traditional models. Online news is gaining popularity. There is hope, but the overwhelming majority of content viewership is through the traditional channels (no pun intended). I have high hopes for Netflix and those like them, but the difficulty of overpowering a group of giants cannot be overstated.

Remote Control 2.0

The remote control is a fascinating piece of technology. A technology that has been around for decades is still widely feared and poorly understood. Most houses have several and even though very reasonably priced universal remotes exist to control everything easily, most people don't use them as their sole mechanism for control.

My house uses the Logitech Harmony One. There is no other remote control in sight. Period.

Naturally this is the part of the TV revitalization discussion that invites the most creativity and catches the most headlines, after all, we can all get behind "fixing" the remote. Right?

The ideas are flashy, poorly thought out, and unconvincing. This isn't to say that someone somewhere has a great idea, but the masses aren't reading headlines about it. Here are the common ones:

  • Motion control akin to Microsoft's Xbox Kinect
  • Voice control (I've seen both talking at the TV and into a "remote control" in your hand)
  • Smartphone or tablet control

Motion control seems to be catching the attention of tech news outlets among others. Samsung is well known for their "try everything and see what sticks" approach to technology, so naturally they've got some offerings in this space. It isn't ergonomic, you might spill your beer, and when was the last time people watching TV opted for any kind of physical activity? While this makes for an interesting demo, I simply cannot see a trajectory where it takes off. The motion control stuff is likely to be limited to gaming where it has found a nice home.

Voice control is thought to be an even more viable option to replace the remote, but I disagree. I wouldn't be surprised to see voice control included in most future TVs, but it will not be the primary mechanism for control. Voice control has its place and I use Siri daily. However, for the same reason you don't use Siri on the bus ride home or in a quiet sea of cubicles at work, most people will not be controlling their TV with their voice unless they're alone and have their hands full. It is socially awkward to be talking to your TV in a room full of people, though I see that trend shifting slowly. Half the time I'm talking to Siri at home, unless my wife is next to me, I get the "were you talking to me?" question shouted from the other room. I see voice control of televisions being a standard feature, but never the ubiquitous primary mechanism for controlling the TV.

Smartphone and tablet control was thought to be the answer for a little while, but momentum is slowing - rightfully slow. Samsung has been adding IR blasters to their phones, though I suspect with Bluetooth 4.0 we'll see the end of IR over the next decade. The problem with using these devices to control the TV and entertainment system is the initial lag to open the app and initiate the command. Soon we'll have devices that are far more situationally aware, so your phone will know you're watching TV and provide controls on the lock screen, which is a step in the right direction. However, the other trend is to be using these devices while watching TV, and often interrupting what you're doing is more of an annoyance than a feature. I use my phone to control my Apple TV, but only as plan B. I don't see this changing. Like voice control, it will be available on most TVs, but will not replace the remote.

The Rest

These aren't the only hurdles, but they're the most publicized. There is the issue of viewing habits; getting people to change their routines and adopt new technology is always an uphill battle. I believe this can be, and will be, solved by a set top box that can provide live content in a seamless way while being tightly integrated with content on demand and blurring the line between the two. Another issue (for another article) is bandwidth and how net neutrality can play a role. If the broadband owners control what gets enough bandwidth to be streamed there will be problems to solve there as well.

This isn't a summary of why the TV industry won't be disrupted. It will. This is simply a more realistic view of why click bait headlines don't accurately represent the disruption. The user experience side of this is the easy part. Once the content is available via progressive channels and technologies (akin to Netflix but without the delay from airing live) we'll finally have the disruption followed by the revitalization of the television industry we all long for so dearly.