Big drives, wide pipes will shift how we watch TV

Published January 1, 2005

I have no idea what television shows are on what night anymore. I have a vague idea that CSI is on Thursday, but that’s a stretch. My world is a TiVo world, and I suspect it’s going to get that way for everyone.

As the father of a two-year old I’ve learned that you get to watch TV when he allows it. Put on Battlestar Galactica when he wants to watch Maisy and you’re in for a fight.

Hence, TiVo. When Sam’s asleep, my wife and I can see what we’ve recorded — it’s set up to grab all our favorite shows. “Oh, we’ve got a couple of West Wings to catch up on,” is a common phrase.

Whether it’s a toddler, a job, or a party lifestyle, more and more folks are “timeshifting” — recording shows to watch later. As a result, TV-watching habits have changed, and they’re poised to change again in a big way.

That’s because of two trends that have been going on for some time, and that are at or near a tipping point for having a significant impact: Cheap storage, and cheap bandwidth.

Data storage is inexpensive and getting cheaper all the time. Hard drives on the order of 150 or 200 GB are standard in today’s PCs, and adding another drive that big doesn’t cost an arm and a leg; as I write this, a 200-GB Seagate drive can be had for about $125. The drives are also getting more reliable. Yes, crashes certainly happen, but they’re less frequent and besides, low-priced drives mean making multiple copies is cheap and easy.

For large data centers, a few terabytes of storage is nothing, and even getting into peta- and exabyte levels of storage isn’t farfetched. Inexpensive storage also means more-secure storage, as data can be mirrored in several locations; if one site is “lost,” the others take up the slack.

Mirrored data also means distributed data. Back in the day when the big online service was Prodigy, the company had a problem. It has users from around the country requesting the same data. Having one data center didn’t make sense; not only would the files have to travel farther for some users, the data lines to that center would get clogged. So Prodigy adopted a distributed data approach: It sent files from a main data center to locations around the country, which reduced the load on its servers.

In other words, cheap storage means more-easily-distributed data, which means faster delivery.

Bandwidth, too, is getting cheaper. The country as a whole is approaching 50% broadband penetration, and some states are already well past the halfway mark. Many broadband providers (typically cable companies) are offering 4 and 5 Mbps connections as their low-tier products.

The bandwidth increase is mirrored, so to speak, across the country. Backbones are being upgraded in response to the greater bandwidth to homes and businesses. Fiber-optic lines are being laid, WiMAX towers are being built, and other broadband data paths are being contemplated. Soon there will be big — nay, huge — data pipes connecting the entire country.

And that has extraordinary implications for Blockbuster, for DVD players, and for television networks and advertisers.

Cable TV companies like Time Warner, Cox, and Comcast have a lot of data on their hands, and it’s not on reels of celluloid in a basement — a lot of it is on hard drives. That means it’s in a form that’s easy to deliver to users over those nice, big data pipes.

Pay-per-view movies and the limited video on demand we see now are just the tip of the looming iceberg. In fact, just the other day Comcast and Cox bought a company called Liberate Technologies so they could provide “interactive television” — in other words, to let users choose what they want to see.

The shift is already underway from a television that shows what they want to one that shows what you want.

Not too long from now, it won’t make sense for you to use a local Blockbuster (or even a service like NetFlix, at least in its current incarnation) for your video-rental needs. Why deal with a limited selection or waiting for the mail to come?

In a few years, more and more movies will make it to video-on-demand libraries as cable and media companies start storing every movie and television show ever made on those massive, distributed hard drives I mentioned.

Sure, there are some problems to be overcome. Talking about how easy it is to distribute data isn’t the same as doing it. You can’t just say “mission accomplished” if it isn’t; people will notice. Dealing with 1,000 households in a neighborhood asking for 1,000 different videos at the same time is a tough nut to crack. But cracked it will be.

And, of course, there are the legal issues. Will Cox Communications be able to license Time-Warner material? Will Sony movies make it to DirecTV?

But wrinkles will be ironed out, contracts will be signed, and our concept of “renting” a movie will shift.

One interesting possibility: Combining the on-demand-ness of TiVo with peer-to-peer networks. So if I forget to record this week’s Lost, I can request it from other users on the network. Maybe it will take a day to make it to my TiVo’s hard drive, but make it it will.

Television, too, will change. Today, as you know, Lost is on ABC at 8:00 on Wednesdays. Those of us with digital video recorders like TiVo can easily watch it anytime (assuming we record it). But let’s take that idea — it’s often referred to as “timeshifting” — to the extreme.

In the not-too-distant future, Lost won’t be on at 8:00 Wednesday; it will be available at 8:00 Wednesday. The idea of a network’s schedule will fade away as people access their favorite shows when they want to via TiVo or more commonly, their cable or satellite provider’s database.

In other words, you won’t need a TiVo or a VCR because your cable company will serve as your library.

Take it even further and you can imagine the decline of the television network in favor of the studios that actually create the shows. But that’s looking way far ahead.

Of course, this may be delayed if bad laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — laws that trample on the fair-use rights of viewers — are allowed to stand, people won’t give up their DVD players. They won’t be sure if the movie they recorded will still be around in a few weeks.

The DMCA, among other things, lets the movie makers decide what you can and cannot do with your movies and music. They can forbid you from watching a recording in another room, or from making a backup of a DVD, or from copying a CD to an MP3 player to listen while jogging.

In fact, networks like HBO can tell some video recorders to automatically delete the shows you’ve recorded after a certain amount of time. So you might record an episode of The Sopranos on your TiVo, but find it erased after a couple of weeks thanks to agreements between cable companies, DVR makers, and networks. How nice.

In a more likely but perhaps more unsettling scenario, you might have to pay again to see that episode. And again. And again. And if they notice that you’re a serious fan, what’s to keep them from raising their fees for that particular series, especially in conjunction with discounts on other shows for which they’re trying to build an audience of people like you?

Hopefully Congress will pass Rep. Rick Boucher’s Digital Media Consumer Rights Act this year, which will restore viewers’ rights and eviscerate the DMCA. A subject for another column. Till then, Google has the goods if you want more.

The digitalization of content is giving us a lot more flexibility than we could have dreamed. Suddenly everything is portable and easily distributed, and that’s going to give us new ways to enjoy the media — what we want, on our schedule, on the devices we choose. Provided, of course, Congress does the right thing.





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