The future of television lies on television, not the Net

There are a group of tech­nolo­gies that are final­ly ready for prime time, and that togeth­er are going to reshape the way we watch tele­vi­sion.

A cou­ple of weeks ago, CBS announced that it was going to start putting more con­tent on the Web — audio, video, etc. — and it would allow peo­ple to choose what they want­ed to watch.

This is sup­posed to be a big thing. It isn’t. It is, how­ev­er, yet anoth­er small step toward what I’m going to talk about this week.CBS tout­ed this “new” on-demand approach as an alter­na­tive to CNN’s 24-hour for­mat. To TV peo­ple, this is a Big Deal. But “on demand” has always been the Internet way of doing things. Heck, it’s always been the news­pa­per’s way of doing things.

CBS is sim­ply doing what gadzil­lions of oth­er Web sites already do: Offering con­tent for peo­ple to choose from. Sure, some of CBS’ con­tent is pro­fes­sion­al­ly pro­duced news, and the result is a very slick site. But in terms of chang­ing things, this Big Deal is pret­ty much a whoop-dee-do.

The on-demand Internet is old hat. The future — thanks in large part to the Internet — is true on-demand tele­vi­sion.

The times, they are a‑shiftin’

For the past 50 or 60 years, we’ve watched TV on the sched­ule of oth­er peo­ple. The Dick Van Dyke show aired at such-and-such a time, and that’s when you watched it. If you were out, too bad.

Later, VCRs and DVRs — dig­i­tal video recorders — came along. They allowed you to post­pone and save the shows you liked so you could watch them when you want­ed to. It’s often called “time-shift­ing,” and the enter­tain­ment indus­try fought tooth and nail to pre­vent you from doing it.

And that’s pret­ty much where things are today.

But com­pare this mod­el to music. Bruce Springsteen’s new Devils and Dust album was­n’t broad­cast on a cer­tain day and time the way, say, an episode of Battlestar Galactica is. It was made avail­able then.

Music is released. Television is scheduled.

That’s going to change.

Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has shown peo­ple a dif­fer­ent mod­el: one where you get what you want, when you want it — where the chan­nel mod­el is replaced by the site mod­el. Channels are lim­it­ed; sites are not.

And that’s how tele­vi­sion is going to change.

The pipe ahead

There’s a good chance you have two con­nec­tions com­ing into your home: One for tele­vi­sion and one for the Internet.

Your TV set is hooked up to one con­nec­tion, and your cable/satellite provider gives you a list of chan­nels to watch. A lim­it­ed list.

Your com­put­er is hooked up to the oth­er con­nec­tion; your provider (maybe even the same com­pa­ny that pro­vides your TV sig­nal) lets you access an unlim­it­ed “list” of Web sites.

An odd dichoto­my, no?

It’s strange because these days it’s all just data. In fact, video on the Internet is like­ly in the same for­mat as what you get over a satel­lite or dig­i­tal cable con­nec­tion. It’s called MPEG‑2, and it’s the same one used on DVDs as well.

In oth­er words, that same Internet con­nec­tion you’re using to view this Web page could be used to bring you full-size, DVD-qual­i­ty video.

In fact, some phone com­pa­nies have acquired cable TV licens­es and are deliv­er­ing “IPTV” — dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion car­ried over phone lines, using Internet tech­nol­o­gy. It’s indis­tin­guish­able from cable or satel­lite, except that the line com­ing into your liv­ing room looks like a phone cord, not a TV cable.

And this is why CBS does­n’t quite get it. The future isn’t video on the Internet in a lit­tle win­dow on your com­put­er. The future is full-qual­i­ty video over the Internet to your tele­vi­sion.

The steps are being tak­en. There’s IPTV that I just men­tioned; so the tech­nol­o­gy exists to use the Internet infra­struc­ture to car­ry tele­vi­sion. There are faster and faster data pipes com­ing into your home. There’s incred­i­bly cheap stor­age; a $200 TiVo can hold more than 80 hours of DVD-qual­i­ty tele­vi­sion. There are ser­vices such as MovieLink , MovieFlix , and even Netflix that will (or in Netflix’s case, will soon) let you down­load movies to watch on your PC.

There are Media Center PCs, sold by big names like Gateway and HP , that let you watch and record tele­vi­sion shows on your com­put­er.

Those are small steps to the on-demand fin­ish line. A larg­er one is Microsoft’s Media Center Extender Set-top Box. It con­nects to your tele­vi­sion to your PC, so you can not only watch the net­works, you can also access the music, pho­tos, and video that are on your com­put­er.

Now imag­ine that CBS decid­ed to archive all its shows at a month after they aired on tra­di­tion­al tele­vi­sion. You could access these shows through your PC, which was con­nect­ed to your TV.

Or imag­ine that a com­pa­ny pro­duced a show or movie that they could­n’t get a net­work inter­est­ed in, so it they post the video on its Web site. You could watch it not by chang­ing TV chan­nels, but by telling your TV to go to that site.

This is where we’re head­ed — away from the notion of chan­nels.

You’ll be able to go to any num­ber of sites and choose your con­tent from a library. Maybe it will be the CBS library, maybe it will be per­son­al stuff, maybe it will be movies from Netflix.

But the idea of chan­nels will end, and with it the idea of net­works. Well, sort of. CBS will still have a pres­ence, as will ABC, NBC, and the oth­ers, but instead of sim­ply broad­cast­ing shows, they’ll main­tain libraries.

And they’ll fund shows and movies to try to attract you to those libraries. (How far back those libraries will go, and how much they’ll charge for access, will be up to them.)

But it will cer­tain­ly change the role of cable com­pa­nies as gate­keep­ers of con­tent — they’ll sim­ply be pipeline providers. And then all sorts of fun reg­u­la­to­ry issues will begin.

So just as the World Wide Web lets an indi­vid­ual have as much of a pres­ence as a big cor­po­ra­tion, Internet-based tele­vi­sion will allow any­one with a dig­i­tal cam­corder and a good script get as much atten­tion as NBC.

And that will change every­thing.