Internet-Style Television

The phrase "information superhighway" is broad and vague enough to cover a number of sins. Lately, two competing paradigms of the i-way crystallized from the miasma of superficial chatter on the topic: one was Internet-centered, the other television-centered.

The Internet approach, naturally favored by users of the existing Net, was a decentralized, on-demand, heterogenous medium, with the video-capable computer as its centerpiece.

The television approach, favored by media moguls who didn't know any better, was a slightly less stupid TV, equipped with a set-top box and attached to a cable across which you could order programming or surf the Internet. A remote would double as a mouse; in this incredibly limited view of the future, a keyboard would be optional.

While the Internet model involved many-to-many communications, the TV model was just another permutation of broadcasting; without a keyboard, interactivity would be limited to the user's selection of content, not really that much different from the interaction involved in switching channels.

As Steve Levy pointed out in an article last year in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the media barons were simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Most set top box projects have gone down to defeat, and most of the big mergers announced between media and telephone or cable companies (with the intention of consolidating ownership of the means of production and distribution of i-way content) simply didn't happen.

In the meantime, the Internet surges forward insouciantly, doubling in size every nine months (the Web alone has been doubling every month and a half).

Two other factors that affect the eventual destiny of the TV set are technological and sociological. On the one hand, the computer makes a much better TV than the TV does a computer; today's computers handle high resolution graphics fine, while the TV has always been a shitty medium for reading text. On the other hand, the TV and the computer have traditionally lived in separate rooms, configured very differently; we sit much closer to the computer than we do to the TV. Converging the two instruments would require a major attitude shift.

Of course, this assumes that people will buy only one appliance or the other; if there is a computer in the family room, there cannot be one in the computer room. There is no reason why I can't keep my computer in the upstairs den, for word processing and other close-up work, while replacing the family TV with a more intelligent appliance. Today, the television is still the dumbest machine in the house; it has fewer microchips in it than the microwave.

More important than the question of what will actually sit in my living room is the question of what will be the means of distribution behind it. The Internet's paradigm of on demand distribution applied to television raises some very interesting possibilities for the future.

Television, as it was created and as it still exists today, has some points of similarity with the early mainframe. Just as shows are scheduled, computing jobs also had to be scheduled. In both cases, the equipment used to communicate with the "server"--the teletype or ASCII terminal on the one hand and the television on the other-- had no local intelligence.

The computing world long ago moved to the client server paradigm, where data could be pulled from the server at any time and reviewed or manipulated locally, and the question arises why we wouldn't want to do the same thing in the world of television. Looked at this way, we already have: VCR's were the first step in the direction of the intelligent client, which could store data instead of merely displaying it at the same moment it was being produced on the server. The VCR produced the spectacle of the semi-smart client and the unendingly stupid server; the i-way gives us at least the strong possibility of a smart server and an even smarter client, allowing us to call for our information when and in the form that we want it.

People who have spent their lives in television are presumably appalled by the changes this would work on the industry. What further identity does a network or the local station have if the show--the content--becomes a menu item called forth at will? How do you assemble a mass audience for a show if timing and scheduling no longer mean anything? The business of filling prime time slots, of anchoring evenings with hit shows, becomes meaningless.

Not necessarily. The distributors of shows--whether you call them "networks" or something else--could still produce a pretty fair semblance of broadcast television for anyone who still wanted it. A new show--the latest episode of NYPD Blue, for example-- would still be released into the system at 10:00 on Tuesday night; anyone eager to see it before hearing friends discuss it would watch it at the moment of its original release. You could continue to use TV in a traditional sense, viewing a "network's" schedule of the evening's new releases or reruns. Shows could still boost other shows and maintain a mutual identity.

But the rest of us would simply order the new programming as and when we wanted it--along with old and new movies, documentaries, stock information, weather reports, text, Web pages, and anything else available in the system. There would never be "nothing on"; for the existing system of "sweep weeks" and doldrums we would substitute a vast library of content, with new selections added daily.

An Internet-style approach to television would have several incidental beneficial effects.

Television would become much more democratic, because the networks would no longer act as barriers to the national distribution of programs. Just as anyone can mount a Web page, and The Ethical Spectacle is just as easy to find as Time Warner's, anyone who could afford to produce one would be able to place a new TV program in the system. If they wanted to, content producers could go directly to the audience, without the necessity of persuading a network of the validity or popularity of their ideas. This would certainly create a greater diversity of political viewpoints in talk shows and documentaries, many of which cannot get airtime or are seen only on local access channels today. New fictional shows of narrower interest, or with content too unusual for the networks, would also become possible. Advertising could be sold directly on such shows, or users could pay a fee to see them. With the middleman largely eliminated, a small fee could mean a large profit to the content producer, given the emerging demographics of the Net.

Internet-style distribution of TV programs would also cripple the two excuses for government regulation of content. TV would no longer make use of the broadcast spectrum, eliminating the "scarcity" rationale, and would no longer be "pervasive", as users would search for content rather than having it intruded upon them. (I don't believe, by the way, that the "pervasiveness" excuse has any logic to it today, but, even accepting its advocate's definition as valid, it would have no meaning in a world of Internet-style distribution of programs.) With no further need for the licensing of distributors by the FCC, or for its intervention in content, we would finally have a "broadcast" medium which enjoyed the full protection of the First Amendment, redressing the mistake made sixty years ago.

Given the obvious user benefits of a decentralized distribution model for television, what are the barriers to its implementation? Most importantly, the Internet, and most particularly the Web, will have to prove itself as an economic model first. So long as no-one knows how to make money on the Net, we cannot expect TV to adopt an Internet-style distribution mechanism. Will advertising work? Will people pay for content they are used to receiving for free? How much will they pay?

Once the economics are worked out, there will be more businessfolk eager to try it. But Internet-style television will threaten two very powerful existing structures: the networks and the government bureaucracy that exists to regulate them. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt thinks that when the television and the computer converge, the FCC's role should be expanded; certainly he would not be happy at the thought that the FCC should simply fade away, like a bad dream. The networks will (as they have already been doing in their merger activity) look for ways to control distribution; they will not go gently into that good night. Both networks and government bureaucracy will invest time, energy and money fighting for the status quo.

Ideas don't triumph simply because they make good sense for democracy; they must please capitalism as well. It remains to be seen whether Internet-style television can do both.