Disrupt TV

We recently at home installed “Shaw Gateway“, to replace the previous PVR we had – mostly because we have 2 TVs, and remembering where I’d recorded what was a hassle. And it’s better in many ways than the previous system. I generally like the UI better, although it is still terrible. Everything about this says “I was designed by an engineer”. For something that exists almost entirely as end-user interface, it’s shockingly bad. But it’s no worse than the systems I’ve seen for Telus or Comcast, so I’m assuming they’re all more or less the same. Like DVD/Blu-ray/TV menus. The Apple TV menu, which still is pretty shitty IMO (see how many clicks it takes to find, then play, a video stored in your itunes library), is so much better than all of these, it’s no wonder that people are clamoring for a “real” Apple TV.

When will there be a Nest for TV interface? I’m currently assuming the reason for all of this is that all the software is locked down by the broadcasters so that they maintain a monopoly on the devices used to watch their programming. Sort of like Carriers/hardware pre-iPhone.

Most of all, given the existence of such services as “on-demand”, and the relative costs and support-headaches of providing physical hardware with fallible hard-drives is why this is stored at my house at all. Over christmas, I downloaded a saved game from Skyrim onto a brand-new xbox in a totally different city and continued playing it. I feel like I should be able to do the same with anything I’ve PVR’d. There’s got to be a business model in there that makes sense:

  • Let people have an allotted space (let’s say 50GB), with their cable subscription, or, charge them pennies per GB per month, scaling on range
  • You could potentially charge people to stream shows they’ve recorded, but that seems “mean” – after all, they pay a monthly subscription to cover costs.
  • much like the super-annoying ads that you can’t skip on some DVD/blu-ray discs, providers could sell non-skippable ads prior to a streamed show (perhaps in lieu of charging for storage or bandwidth).

What cable-providers “own” is the content they provide. Sure, they’re just conduits for networks, but there’s a HUGE convenience to the end-user. Imagine if you had to order/pay each network separately to get access to their content? Sure, some people would, but it would be a hassle (aside: this channel-as-app trend is worrisome. Less choice is often better than more choice, if more convenient. But why not open up the ability to access that content? Write an API, let anyone create ways to access it. Charge for that access. Think of the business savings of having only a few B2B accounts to manage, rather than 10s of thousands of end-user customer accounts. Let new, innovative startups find new, interesting ways to provide your content to people, while you sit back and focus on large-scale infrastructure & volume deals.  Cablecos and telcos are sort of the same: their business should be providing large scale infrastructure and charging for the use of that infrastructure (data,voice,video,audio). The iPhone and the subsequent smart-phone revolution have started the process of revolutionizing how we interact with our carriers (particularly as more and more phones are sold “unlocked”). I don’t personally think that TVs themselves are a great hardware/software business for apple to get into. A TV is just a monitor. Sure, Apple and others make some gorgeous monitors, but not because the software in them is great – just solid industrial design. Where TV can, and, should be disrupted are these little, (somewhat) cheap, (somewhat) disposable boxes through which we interact with the content on our TV. This is where the disruption should happen. Something that people can afford to upgrade hardware every few years, with software updates in between. Much like I currently pay Rogers for access to their infrastructure (and they subsidize the cost of my phone over a 2-year contract), while I pay Apple and other 3rd parties for hardware and software, why am I not paying Shaw for access to their infrastructure, but someone else for the hardware and various software options to use on my device?

My PVR and my vision for my TV-viewing future

I’ve been thinking lately around the business model for Cable/TelCos & PVRs, and it seems to me that the current model is likely to be short-lived, with good reason, for both the companies and consumers. Why? Because it’s a one-time sale for the companies, and the storage on them is ludicrously small for consumers.

Currently, how I watch TV is that I go home, and I search my channel guide for:

  1. TV series that I want to watch, then record the series
  2. upcoming 1-off shows that I want to watch, like movies or sports, and set a recording for those.

This is all fine and dandy, except for a few problems:

  1. I have to be in front of the TV to set a new recording
  2. I have to use my remote to navigate the interface as well as “type” when searching, for which task it is most wretched
  3. I have to use the TV I recorded the show to in order to watch it (I only actually have 1 TV, but many, many homes I know have more than 1 – and can’t record a show on one TV to watch later on other TVs)
  4. I don’t have enough room to store an entire season’s worth of shows (or even several seasons) worth of shows on my PVR for later watching.

Now, the techies amongst us will say “Use a media PC!” – and that’s true, I can – that certainly takes care of some of these issues, as long as keep buying hardware to store this stuff, and have the technical know-how to link up 1 or more TVs scattered around the house to a centralized media server – certainly not something I could imagine many of my peers doing, let alone my parents. Slingbox solves many of these problems, it is true – but for the Cable/TelCo’s, it doesn’t do anything – a win for consumers that my guess is, angers the companies.

So after my rant, I suspect many of you can see where I’m heading – the cloud. Shaw is my current cable provider, so we’ll use them as the test case here for how infrastructure should be built. And note that most of it can be built on already extant technology that is currently available to consumers:.

Shaw builds a web portal for all cable customers. In this portal, I can browse listings, search shows based on any number of criteria (actors, studios, genre, directors, writers,etc) – most of this information readily available on services like IMDB, and so can simply be pulled in via Web Service for my use. Once I’ve found shows, let me set up a recording for my PVR – on the website (I believe that ComCast already offers something along the lines of this). This would then record to my PVR. Much like Tivo does, the service could very easily and quickly provide recommendations based on previous behaviour, what other customers have chosen, to allow me to extend my recordings. Take this one step further, and add a social component – allow me to share my recordings with my friends, and see their recordings. Let us recommend series/episodes/events to each other, and interact on the site regarding our shows. So now I’ve got a vastly more robust way to find & record shows. When I get weekly newsletters from things like MovieCentral, or whatever, I could easily click a link or two and have that movie set up to record – from wherever in the world that I am.

The next step is where to store these recordings, and the answer is simple: up in the cloud. Why? because then the storage is unlimited, and it can provide yet another revenue stream for the companies. For each level of subscription package, offer a certain amount of space, starting at, let’s say, 10GB – a paltry amount. But give customers the option of upping their storage, for a nominal fee – again, because storage is dirt cheap. That way, if I wanted to store the entire season of Lost, Heroes, the Daily Show for later watching, I could. Because I could just pay for more storage. At home, my interface remains the same: I click the “list” button, but instead of things stored locally, I’m now browsing my cloud storage. Of course, the list itself could download and be stored locally for ease of use/whatnot.

Once this model is working, a whole ream of future possibilities opens up for the Cable/TelCo’s to provide service (and make money), including:

  • Let me add OLD shows to my library – similar to buying an episode from iTunes – either free (or dirt cheap) with Ads still in the show (and could be current ads, not from the original air date) or more expensive, but ad-free. Again, these old episodes could be rented by me or sold.
  • Take a page from XBox Live and allow viewing parties – hell, integrate with XBox live, so I can watch a show with my friends, chatting over the mic, or with our avatars in front, what-not. It would be great fun for Leah to watch ANTM with her friends, even though they can’t all get together because of kids or whatnot. Again this could be a free, free-x-times-per-month, free-with-y-package or even a pay-per-use service.
  • Build (& sell) clients for computers, phones, anything, so I can actually watch my shows from anywhere. How great would it be to sit down in my seat on a WestJet or Air Canada plane and connect to my Shaw Library to watch shows while traveling? Or on my iPhone? Again, this could work in a pure-streaming method, or a “temporary download” or any number of any methods, depending on available technology & bandwidth.

None of the above strike me as terribly complicated things to accomplish, technology-wise. It’s possible (though I don’t know) that we wouldn’t even need new set-top boxes – just a firmware update, as they’re clearly able to connect online for the On-Demand services.

So why is this a win? Because it keeps Cable/TelCo’s in control of distribution in a way they’re rapidly losing on right now to Hulu, iTunes. It provides a more convenient service to customers, it provides a slew of new revenue streams, and what’s more, potentially huge cost-savings to these companies. Now, I highly doubt that any savings would be passed on to customers, but it could be. It keeps networks happy because they can still sell  ads that might be seen, it can provide the producers with some measurable viewing stats, because each stream of a show from the cloud could easily be tracked, which might fix the current ratings-are-down-because-people-pvr-the-show problems. And it wins because it is future-friendly – as new options become available, they only need to update a centralized service, which can easily be segmented into beta-test populations, not roll out a new hardware set-top box to millions of houses. And as/if these companies settle on some standards, hardware manufacturers can start to build hooks directly into TVs and whatnot.

What’re your thoughts?

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