Choices, choices

Keeping up with unlimited, on-demand TV options is a lot of work

I was reading this piece on the future of TV distribution, and who will be the first to really blow up the old model and give us “a cloud-based ecosystem.”

I’m not exactly sure what a cloud-based ecosystem is, but I agree that the integration of TV with the internet, and the availability of on-demand programming, is only going to grow. This is the type of thing that people have been talking about as an ideal literally since TV was invented. This is what John Culshaw, a record producer about to become head of music for the BBC, wrote about the future of TV in 1967:

The listener, or viewer, or whatever one calls him, will either be able to play his own tapes or records over such a system to produce sound and vision, or he will be able to command such a performance to take place by dialing some code through which a computer will channel the performance to him. Nobody has yet quite worked out how he will pay for this, but history has shown that once a demanded facility becomes technically possible, it takes no time at all to find out how to charge for it.

So the idea that TV will be connected directly to computers, and that we will order our programs directly, is an idea that has been surprisingly slow to come, considering how many people have had the idea. Now that the technology is starting to catch up with the idea, it might just be a matter of waiting for a new generation to take full control of TV viewing, a generation that demands and expects on-demand viewing.

On the other hand, there is some reason to be skeptical that on-demand will take over completely, and the reason is that a lot of people (of whatever generation) really don’t watch TV to get something specific. The old theory of TV viewing was that people watched TV just because they wanted to watch something, and that they would gravitate to the Least Objectionable Programming (“LOP”), meaning that what they watched wasn’t necessarily something they were passionate about. That has changed with the multi-channel universe and the internet, but it hasn’t changed completely – people still do watch TV for its own sake, just as people still “go to the movies” rather than one specific movie.

Offering an infinite number of choices, and then requiring the viewer to get the word on which shows they must see and which ones to avoid, turns TV viewing into a lot of work. Many people like the work of choosing; other people don’t; others like it sometimes but not other times. So I wonder if the “channel” concept could still remain – even after TV becomes more folded into the internet – just because we do need some way of managing our choices or narrowing them down. The alternative is that the most popular TV episodes will be whichever ones are at the top of a list, just because so many people will click on the first option.

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