SOUND, GARDEN — Television is at the event horizon of an IP singularity. The singularity is where all content creation and distribution occurs on IP-based networks. The event horizon is where the chaos happens. As such, there are profuse moving parts going in multiple and unpredictable directions.
On the end-user side, for example, consider “TV Everywhere,” the television industry’s underwhelming appellation for delivering programming to any type of screen Chinese labor can churn out. The conundrum of TV Everywhere is the same one unleashed by Napster in 1999—digital content is virtually impossible to control. Consequently, TV Everywhere is subject to authentication, the types of which vary like black-hole particle behavior, or a pack of feral cats on Red Bull.
Rather than a single, simple, universal interface that provides TV Everywhere access to all network content, each network and provider has to have its own. That’s understandable from their perspective, but a lot of methane for end-users. I couldn’t watch any of the 2008 Beijing Olympics online, for example, because I was not a cable subscriber. In other words, because I was a loyal viewer of NBC’s over-the-air signal in Los Angeles, I was rewarded by being locked out of the network’s online Olympics coverage.
Now, five years yon, this injustice has been rectified. No, it has not. BTIG Analyst Rich Greenfield wrote this week about a new TV Everywhere app from ABC that the local New York affiliate, WABC, has been barking up on taxi-cab TV.
“Unfortunately, there is no way for New York City residents to actually live stream on the WatchABC app,” Greenfield said. “When you pull up live streaming on the WatchABC app, you are asked to authenticate, but neither Manhattan MVPD—Time Warner Cable and Verizon FiOS—allows you to authenticate WatchABC,” nor does DirecTV nor Dish.
Meanwhile, Aereo is blasting the live signal from WABC and other local affiliates all over the five boroughs to anyone willing to pay $8 for TV, everywhere. Aereo doesn’t have a huge following yet, and while I’ve taken issue with their legal maneuvers, the service appears to be far more user-friendly than what networks and pay TV providers offer.
My query then to Aereo is based on their premise that they should be able to retransmit broadcast signals for free: So why isn’t their service free? Aereo would be much better off cutting deals with broadcasters to provide free, universally authenticated service versus milking end-users for a few bucks apiece.
Broadcasters are instead trying to sue Aereo into the ground. If that doesn’t work, News Corp. honcho Chase Carey says he’ll just pull Fox off the air. Fox would presumably then become a pay TV network, or maybe an “Internet-only broadcaster,” as TV Technology contributor Wes Simpson theorizes in “Can TV Broadcasters Really Go OTT?”
Internet broadcasting, though IP-based, is fundamentally different from IPTV, which telcos have employed for years to deliver television and broadband service over dedicated networks. (Think NetFlix vs. AT&T’s Uverse.) IPTV is bandwidth efficient because video signals are delivered to the home individually, versus in a package as they are with cable and satellite.
Internet TV is similarly delivered per individual “request.” That’s one thing when watching TV online is “over-the-top” of traditional consumption methods. It’s another matter entirely to think over-the-air broadcasting can be replaced by OTT via public servers and IP networks that can be brought down by stampedes. This is not to say it cannot be done. Television delivered exclusively online is the singularity, (in technical terms—socioeconomic implications aside). We are at the event horizon, where steps toward the singularity are being defined by companies like Cisco, for example.
What TV Everywhere currently lacks, Cisco is attempting to bring to at least one aspect of television—the electronic program guide. Cisco is working on a cloud-based EPG that uses one HTML5 code for rendering the same user interface across TVs, smartphones and tablets, according to Videonet. Service providers get a universal application, and end-users get one, simple, consistent interface for all their devices.
Cisco’s cloud EPG also has implications for an all-Internet TV world as well, in that it uses predictive analysis to anticipate usage peaks and manage server capacity. There’s nothing particularly new about the concept, but doing it on the level of universal TV delivery would be unprecedented. Perhaps not for long, however, given the escalating advances in computer technology, particularly on the software side. As Tiernan Ray writes in Barrons, even enterprise computing hardware is being supplanted by software.
“A network switch or router is a specialized computer with specially developed chips that perform calculations to determine how to direct bits of data between computers,” Ray said. “As complex as they are, some of those calculations can now be efficiently performed in software running on Intel processors.”
It’s only a matter of time, and probably not much of it, before this same concept is applied within the broadcast industry, Joe Zaller writes at Devoncroft. Zaller describes a broadcast business on an IP event horizon, with graphics, transcoding, even playout moving from dedicated hardware to software. As with black holes, the parts are accelerating rapidly. Zaller and others see a future of fully cloud-based broadcast facilities.
“Some have gone as far as saying their ultimate goal is a ‘virtualized broadcast infrastructure with in-line processing.’ In other words, they foresee a future where the broadcast infrastructure is housed in an IT data center, and the operations done today primarily by hardware boxes are carried out by software that plugs in to the IT core. And by the way, broadcasters probably won’t be building this facility. Instead, they’ll rent computing power on an as-needed basis from AWS or some other cloud-based service provider.”
Some of the barriers now involve bandwidth constraints, incompatible formats in the absence of standards, and certain security issues as perhaps illustrated by the recent EAS hack. An all-IP world is by no means perfect, and going from hardware to software means giving up a certain amount of control—like going from a manual to an automatic transmission. There will be vulnerabilities and bugs, as well as capabilities and opportunities not yet imagined. Cisco’s “third eye” for example, which mines TV content metadata to notify viewers of what’s happening on channels they’re not watching.
The broadcast business is not going away any time soon, a friend of mine likes to remind me. It is definitely on the IP event horizon, however, from which there is now no turning back. The current state of flux and fluid obsolescence will continue until the singularity is achieved.
Rich Greenfield’s blog is at BTIGResearch.com. Registration is required.
Joe Zaller writes at Devoncroft.
Black Hole Flickr image from Jeff Keyzer.
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