Gary Arlen /
01.21.2004 12:00 AM
Tomorrow's Television Remains Elusive
Twenty years ago, the NAB asked me to write a book about "Tomorrow's Television." The resulting volume envisioned much, albeit not all, of the subsequent decades' changes in the media environment.

Among the most salient points in that book was the recognition that the television business of that era consisted of three separate industries: broadcasters (both licensees and networks), program producers and equipment manufacturers (studio/transmitter and home electronics makers). In most cases, the three sectors barely talked to each other except at the technical level-a necessity to assure delivery of images and audio to viewers.

Now, 20 years after that report, the TV industry has been invaded -- "overwhelmed," some contend -- by hordes of interlopers who want to overhaul the way television is sent and seen. Certainly, the ascent of satellites, advances in computer-oriented television programming and the evolution of display technology have revised the fundamental formula of yore. And introduced significant, powerful sectors into the TV process.

NOTHING IN COMMON?

It's no longer a simple equation of broadcasting + production + hardware = television.

About the only thing those three legacy sectors now have in common are their necessary but increasingly embattled technology connections and their penchant to convene in Las Vegas (NAB, NATPE and CES). The reconfiguration within those industries continues to change the business alliances, too, bringing diverse companies under the same umbrella, e.g. Universal and NBC within the General Electric family, allying production and broadcasting. Similarly, there are Sony's holdings in hardware and movie/TV production studios, plus News Corp. and Disney media conglomerates, which expand over various technology, delivery and programming realms.

These entities do not -- cannot -- move in lockstep as did their mid-century predecessors. Moreover, today's intra-corporate connections -- each of which includes several different TV technology bedfellows-offer no guarantees of smooth relationships or deployment agreements.

More significantly, the image for tomorrow's TV is not necessarily coming from these media giants. Nor is it generated from their uneasy relationships with former partners, such as group station owners a/k/a affiliates.

Shifts are underway which will further fragment the business of tomorrow's television.

SILICON ASSAULT

As we saw at this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Silicon Valley is stepping up its assault on the look and shape of tomorrow's television. Intel's introduction of new semiconductors that are expected to accelerate the introduction of big-screen DTV sets got plenty of attention. But a more fundamental factor was Intel's move into the TV business-joining its traditional computer cronies, such as Microsoft, Gateway, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, which have all been infiltrating the TV industry in various ways for several years. Or trying to do so.

The PC makers are stepping up their media center products, adding hard drives and controls and navigation tools that contribute to the disintegration of traditional television viewing. Although a semblance of technical uniformity-or at least compatibility-exists among the computer cadre, there's every reason to expect breakaway initiatives. That's especially true as the companies form new alliances with cable, satellite and even "telco TV" (telephone company video ventures) that increasingly do not rely-or need to rely-on conventional broadcast standards to deliver their programming.

And then there's China. Not only does it have its own plan for "Enhanced Versatile Disks" (EVD), a standard that could bypass the Euro-American technology's copyright and patent hurdles, but China's emerging electronics industry can rattle the pricing and performance of the global hardware market. Aggressive sales of Chinese-built home display equipment could squeeze the margins out of the traditional TV industry-and could also accelerate the distribution of affordable digital receivers.

Finally, there's programming. Abandoning the "finsyn" rules changed the financial interest and syndication opportunities for broadcast networks and created new production and distribution challenges. But those may be minimal compared to the impact of DVDs and the emerging Digital Video Recorders on the home entertainment front. Who needs syndication when a viewer can own an entire year of his favorite shows in $40 DVD boxed sets? And DVRs-or more pertinently, the DVD-recorders (now dropping toward the magic $200 price point)-expand the opportunity for collecting and storing personal archives of favorite shows.

Yes, some of these technologies are coming from the new media arms of legacy TV industry stalwarts. But the most aggressive options-certainly the ones with the biggest buzz-are stemming from disruptive outsiders.

We're hearing plenty of hopeful naysaying. Defensive DVDadvocates proclaim, for example, that next generation HD-DVDs (Blu-Ray or otherwise), may not make a quick market entry because consumers have just stocked up on today's DVD technology and are satisfied with the quality and price. Who needs to invest in marginally better systems, the status quo folks contend?

Similarly, the disastrous stumbling of streaming media during and after the Internet bubble offer confidence that the promise of Web-delivered televsision is doomed.

Looked at another way, such ostrich attitudes are merely reminders that new pioneers are ready to rearrange the ways we watch television. We see plenty of examples from the evolving and distracting initiatives in home video, digital cinema and Internet Webcasting. All of them exemplify today's increasing nuances that go far beyond anything that the television triumvirate of the 1980s was planning or implementing.

TV is a business that rightly likes to look ahead. Reviewing our visions of what "tomorrow's television" would look like during the 1980s is a painful reminder of how dramatic and unexpected some of the changes have been. All those Las Vegas trade shows (and let's add to that mix the ailing Comdex show, where the crippled PC industry is also trying to re-invent itself) are urgent snapshots of the needed revamping of the TV business. Or more appropriately, "the TV businesses" (plural).

Tomorrow's television will be a lot different than anyone expected, and the changes are not necessarily coming from predictable providers. More important, the new suppliers barely talk to each other-and don't even necessarily know to whom they should be connecting in the new worlds of television.

That's what we'll be tuning into via this column during the months ahead.


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