On the future of television

Posted by Guy Wright

When I was a kid my father bought a fancy motorized TV antenna for our roof that could rotate by turning a dial on a box sitting on top of the TV set.

With that antenna we could pick up a whopping five different TV stations (one of them poorly) but we considered ourselves pretty darn fortunate. If you didn’t like what was on one of those five stations - tough noogies. Read a book or go outside and play. That’s just how it worked. You didn’t have a choice.

Then came cable and the game changed. Now you had 20, 30, or more channels to pick from. Granted the early programming options on cable were fairly dismal, but at least you had more to pick from.

In the early 70’s some cable stations introduced a very limited selection of pay-per-view channels – the beginning of on-demand programming.

At that time they also began experimenting with interactive TV where you could participate with the programs (sort of), pick viewing angles, buy stuff with your remote, or vote for your favorite shows. Turns out people didn’t really want to interact with their TVs – they just wanted to sit back and let someone else entertain them.

Then came game consoles (basically the only form of interactive TV that has succeeded) and VCRs giving us even more choices. When MPEG finally came along DVDs made watching movies on discs acceptable. Again, there was an attempt to make some DVDs quasi-interactive with multiple angles but once again people would rather let the director decide which camera angles worked best. DVDs did, however give us commentaries, deleted scenes, and director’s cuts. DVDs also gave us an excuse to buy surround sound systems.

Next DVRs came along and we could watch shows when it was convenient for us to watch them. It took a while to get going but HDTV has finally become mainstream - 3D not so much. When they get rid of the glasses and
increase the amount of content then 3D will probably catch on.

Flat screens have become the norm these days and they’ll just keep getting bigger and brighter – up to a point that is. You can only magnify TV images so far. When we push beyond HDTV then maybe we’ll see wall-sized screens. At the other end of the size spectrum mobile devices let you get your shows to go – although watching movies on a smart phone is somewhat less than an awesome experience.

Now that streaming technology has finally grown up we are entering an age where true, on-demand programming is finally becoming a reality. We can pick and choose movies and television shows from almost any time, past or present. Now if someone can sort out how to make meaningful profits from on-demand we’ll be able to watch every movie and TV show ever made.

Ultimately we will have complete control over our viewing choices – we’re almost there right now. I don’t know if people will ever want to do much interacting with their televisions other than picking the content they want to watch or playing the occasional game but the lines between TVs, computers, phones, and the internet are eroding quickly and some clever person may one day come up with a compelling reason to lean forward and participate. Until then, most of us prefer to just lean back and surf.