Notes on TV

One of the reasons it's difficult to talk about the future of TV is there are really several separate sets of issues that are in play, which are pretty much self-contained, and depend on quite different factors, and all of which need to move before things can change. 

The US problem

First, the USA is a massively over-served Pay TV market. Pay penetration is very high (90%+), ARPUs are very high by international standards, bundling is very rigid, and so there are lots of people who feel obliged to buy much more than they really want.

Hence, there is a lot of pent-up demand for some sort of unbundled approach - to be able to get just the channels that you want and pay less. But the bundling model is very deeply embedded in the structure of the US TV market, at multiple levels of the value chain, and there are some very strong incentives for a lot of industry participants to continue with the status quo. In other words, everyone hates the way the US TV industry works, except for the US TV industry. This makes the current model very rigid, but also of course potentially very brittle. 

Tech industry attacks on this model have tended to come from the distribution side - they put together a new distribution platform and then go and ask content owners to give them the content to offer an unbundled service. But they very quickly discover that coming to Hollywood with a distribution platform doesn't get you a cup of coffee - you need to propose a more profitable economic model, and back that up with cash on the nail. A physical distribution platform itself is not where the value is - it's the possession of a huge audience or valuable content that gives you power. And it's tough for a platform with no customers to offer better economics than a platform with tens of millions. 

More broadly (i.e. beyond just the US bundling issues) it's helpful to think about TV as a virtuous circle. Audience gives revenue, revenue lets you buy great content, and great content gets you more audience. This is self-sustaining at each level. A big TV channel is big because it's big, not because it has access to a linear distribution path. 

This is a little like orbital mechanics: if you want to go to orbit you need to burn a lot of fuel, and the higher you want to go the more you need to burn - and having a better-looking rocket doesn't make much difference. Money for content is the fuel of the TV business. 

Hence, the interesting thing about Netflix is not so much the physical distribution platform as the use of data to attack the cost of content - if you can make hits more reliably you can get the same audience for less money spent, since you waste less of it. To the TV industry Netflix would look like just another TV channel without the use of data.  

Finally, if the US TV market is over-served, most others are not. The UK is arguably a 'goldilocks' market - half of households have pay TV and are broadly happy with it, and half don't and are broadly happy with that. Meanwhile some European markets are probably underserved for pay TV - more people might like a pay TV product than are currently being given one. So the whole US 'cord cutting is the future' discussion is not necessarily broadly applicable. But the size of the US market (and the physical location of most of the tech industry) tends to shape the debate. It may also focus attention on the wrong problems.

The user experience problem

Next, there is the user experience. It seems pretty clear we're in a 'pre-iPod' phase at the moment. That is, all of the technology is in place, more or less, but no-one has quite managed to package it up in the right way to give the right user experience. There isn't yet a totally fluid way to browse, choose and display what you want on your TV. Lots of people are poking around it (including Apple and Google) but it doesn't seem like we have that magical 'aha' moment just yet.

There are also a bunch of route-to-market problems here. Integration inside a TV is great but TVs are only replaced every 5+ years. Pay TV tech, unlike mobile, is a balkanized mess of standards, with no GSM/UMTS that you can implement and sell globally. Pay TV operators are the gatekeeper to any other equipment in the living room (at least in markets where pay has a large share) unless you can make it really cheap - a couple of weeks before the Chromecast launched I suggested that the next Apple TV should be a $50 HDMI dongle, and the tech for that is moving forward in interesting ways. And of course we also have tablets themselves, which are certainly replacing second TV sets and may take a real share of primary set viewing too.

At the moment there are a lot of rumours that Apple has a new product - but the rumours mainly focus on how it would deal with the unique US content ownership and distribution structures, not the user experience, which is actually the real question. That is, in the US a big part of the user experience gap is the simple availability of content per se, but elsewhere that is much less of an issue. In the UK, for example, all the main broadcasters put the last 7 or 30 days of content online for free, on any device, with no restrictions or messing around. iPad, iPhone, Android, Smart TV, games console - anywhere, any device, any time. And yet peak streams on the BBC's iPlayer service are 600k or so, where peak linear TV viewing is over 20m, and linear TV viewing shows no sign at all of declining. 

How do people really want to watch?

This in turn points to another question, and perhaps a slightly subversive one: how do people actually want to watch 'TV' (or whatever we call it)? Hundreds of millions of normal people really do just come home, turn on the TV and watch whatever's on - if you offered something less passive, do we really know how many would do it? That is, the idea that no-one would watch linear broadcast TV if on-demand worked 'properly' (whatever that might mean) is really just an assumption. 

The really big question here is how TV viewing would change if you did move from the current model of TV as a largely undirected, passive experience, to one that required (/'allowed') you to make choices. If you come home and turn on a random piece of generic light entertainment you'll watch it, but you might never choose to watch it, much less search for it. So is that a bundling problem or a recommendation problem? Should we think of TV viewing hours as propped up by filler shows in the same way that CD albums were full of filler tracks, and that if we go to a fluid on-demand environment people might just stop watching that filler? Or would the right passive programming system - 'Pandora for TV' replace one passive experience with another, more tailored and targeted one, with the greater accessibility of long-tail content taking up the slack? Of course, a lot of TV channel branding and programming is about just this - in effect a lot of TV is 'Pandora for TV'. Either way, this is really about unbundling shows from TV channels, not unbundling channels (or on-demand channel brands) from cable TV subscriptions. And (looking back to Netflix) how would that cascade back though the TV production system? How many fewer shows might be made? How would they be funded? And what would happen to the 'golden age of TV'?