Television on television


Just at the moment I am receiving a steady, almost daily, stream of press releases from an American company called IVI. The service they offer is aimed at an American audience so I will not bore you with the details of their campaign. But it raised some thoughts in the back of my mind.
IVI has developed some clever (it claims) software, for Mac, Linux and Windoze, which sits on your computer and accepts a streamed feed from their servers. So far, so unremarkable. The streamed feed offers the choice of all the mainstream US broadcasters, as live as the latency allows it. Again, this has been done before.
What makes it unusual is that, in all its published statements, IVI makes the point “we pay broadcasters in accordance with the law, just like cable”. In other words, this is a potentially fair and legal source of additional revenue for broadcasters. Yet they have all immediately got lawyered up, and engaged the NAB to argue that IVI is infringing their copyright.
To this outsider, it seems that if IVI is offering to pay for the content, the only difference between cable companies and IVI is that cable companies asked first. They negotiated carriage contracts before embarking on a publicity campaign to sell the service. Which was probably a sensible move.
You also have to wonder precisely how IVI is going to pay the broadcasters. What would NBC do when it gets a cheque in the mail, out of the blue? It’s a big corporation, so I bet it has no mechanism to just take money given to it at random.
Anyway, despite the company’s PR man claiming they “are the good guys operating in good faith”, IVI is being sued. “This is a predictable move by big media to try and stifle innovation,” said Todd Weaver, the CEO.
That is what prompted this month’s column. Is big media really against innovation? And more to the point, is there much appetite to watch television on a computer rather than on that nice device in the corner of the room designed specifically for the purpose?
In the UK, advocates would point to the remarkable success of the BBC iPlayer, which gets upwards of five million unique users a week. That is why it is so spectacularly unpopular with the nation’s internet infrastructure providers, who would dearly love to cripple its performance to stop people hogging bandwidth by watching online rather than via broadcast.
At a recent Westminster Forum conference on net neutrality, BT's director of group industry policy Simon Milner said "We absolutely could see a situation when content or app providers may want to pay BT for quality of service above best efforts.” In other words, if you want your data to go faster – fast enough for video streaming, say – then ISPs would be happy to charge extra.
It is worth adding that Milner went on to say that no-one had yet offered them the extra money, and of course there would be regulatory hurdles to jump through before the net neutrality barrier was broken. But commercial logic says that if a large proportion of internet traffic is coming from one or two bandwidth-heavy sources, then why should they not be asked to pay for their unreasonable demands on capacity.
The other issue is whether anyone in the real world actually wants to watch television on a computer. The old argument is about the “lean forward” and “lean back” experiences. Personally I tend towards the horizontal when watching television. What else are couches for?
Double screening is the new argument: you have two devices in use at the same time. The television gives you the entertainment, the laptop is for communication and interaction.
Like many who attended NAB this year I spent a little longer in Las Vegas than usual, and I came home with an iPad, which is the perfect coffee table device. You can check Facebook, or get a second opinion on the weather forecast, with just a couple of taps. In the old days seeing an actor in a drama and not being able to put your finger on where you had seen her before used to drive you mad. Now that same finger takes you to IMDB and the answer in seconds.
There is a very nice iPlayer client for the iPad, and I have watched something on it just to prove that it is possible. But wonderful device though the iPad may be, it is not as good for television as my 42” Panasonic plasma. And although it takes a little advance planning, I can achieve the “what I want, when I want to watch it” control using Sky+ (other satellite services are available – oh, sorry, no they’re not).
Are broadcasters shrinking back from innovation? No, not really. For me the prospects of a true broadcast/broadband hybrid seem really very attractive. But only if each channel and each device is used for what it does best. And television is, for me at least, best watched on that big screen in the corner of the room.

Tags: iss046 | ipad | iplayer | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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