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04.24.2007
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
The more things change, the more they…change

In the world of IPTV, depending on whom you ask, everything is the same or everything is different.

Some say that the Internet is just another transmission medium. The same rules apply that have applied to broadcast entertainment for more than a century. Others say that the democratizing medium of the Internet demolishes all the old models and that it's an entirely new game on a new playing field with new rules.

Maybe they're both right.

More than 100 years ago, people starting talking about transmitting images in the same fashion as sound. The new idea was called television. The electronic television that came to be synonymous with that term in the mid-20th century was not the first technology to be applied to the problem. Mechanical television lost out in the technology race, but had its serious proponents in the early years.

So there's nothing wrong with calling what we increasingly watch through or on our computers, iPods and camera phones "television." After all, making money in IPTV comes down to advertising, the traditional way of paying for broadcast entertainment.

On the other hand, broadcast television grew out of a particular technology model — a capital-intensive, content-specific model.

If you were listening to Jack Benny's penny-pinching, it was "radio." If you were watching Lucile Ball's manic chocolate making, it was "television." If you were communicating electronically and asynchronously it was called a "telegram." And if you were having a conversation, it was "telephone."

Each medium had its own separate network, technology and monopoly or near-monopoly providers. There was a set of established rules about who created content, who owned content and how they owned it, how content was distributed it, and who profited from content. It was a few-to-many delivery model.

The Internet has changed all that.

Now, the least tech-savvy person can make a VoIP call to mom in Peoria, IM an old friend from high school, watch the latest episode of "Desperate Housewives" on an iPod and film a video news report about an anti-war demonstration in the local park and post it on the Internet or send it over a cell phone to the local TV station. It's all content traveling over one infrastructure: the Internet.

It's impossible to over-emphasize the significance of the Internet's democratization.

Anyone can create and own content. The sophistication of today's camera phones, digital cameras and webcams puts production tools in anyone's hands, as any teenager with a MySpace page knows.

Anyone can distribute content. You can post it on your site and connect directly with your audience. You can distribute it through portals, aggregators and niche sites. You can rely on "the long tail" to carry your content virally to the audience. And there's nothing to prevent the trickle up into traditional channels, like broadcast TV.

Anyone can profit from content. It's easy to set up an online store and sell content for download. Anyone can subscribe to Google AdSense to sponsor content. Venues like GoFish give producers an infrastructure for distributing and getting advertising sponsorship for their work.

And that's just today. Peer-assisted streaming mesh networks are expected to hit the market within the next year, effectively reducing bandwidth cost effectively to zero, eliminating the need for a YouTube to distribute content.

As mesh networks amplify the many-to-many connection of users and content through the Internet, expect to see applications like search, portals and content aggregation that take peer-to-peer out of the realm of tech experts and into everyday life, where you will be streaming video of your baby's first birthday party to Mom in Peoria, possibly with a Sony camera ad.

Those of us in the broadcasting business need to reflect on all this, and see where what we have traditionally done fits into this new world. In the past, the market for broadcasting technology was specific and well defined. Now, that market consists of potentially anybody. Companies that put easy-to-use tools in the hands of users stand to profit.

Today, we are less than two years away from the end of analog television. It's not a stretch to say that Feb. 17, 2009, will also be a convenient date to say goodbye to the broadcast technology industry as we know it.



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