Home > Main > The Future of Television, Part II — Narrowcasting

The Future of Television, Part II — Narrowcasting

August 15th, 2003

When Steve Jobs, iCEO of Apple Computer, gives his trademark keynote speech at whatever Mac convention, Apple Computer has, for the most part, streamed the event over the Internet. What that means is, if you want to see his presentation, you can visit a page at Apple, which then instructs your computer’s QuickTime software on how to access streaming video of the event. Streaming video is essentially like a TV station on the Internet, allowing video to come directly to your computer (without having to save it as a file on your hard drive), albeit presently at relatively low quality and small size. Make the video image full-screen and it looks pretty bad.

Originally, I could only view the video stream at whatever point the broadcast was at when I came in. In other words, just one video signal was being sent out, and viewers tapped into that.

However, when I watched the streaming video of Jobs’ last keynote, I noticed something different from before: I could access the video stream from the very beginning at any time I wanted. This time, the stream started when I wanted it to, and would start new for anyone whenever they accessed it.

This makes a big difference. The prior style was the kind of distribution we are all used to: broadcasting. That means that only one video stream is sent out to a vast multitude of people at the same time. This is what happens with cable and broadcast television–one TV show at a time is sent out to everyone, and everyone sees the exact same thing at the exact same time. We are so used to this style that it seems only natural, and we might have a hard time imagining anything else.

The “anything else” would include what I saw in Jobs’ last keynote: narrowcasting. That means that each viewer receives a completely unique and independent video stream, a private feed from the video provider just to you. It’s as if the TV station is just waiting for you to turn on your TV set, so they can send you whatever TV show you like, whenever you like it. This is the paradigm that the World Wide Web works under, since usually the text and pictures are small enough to be sent to you personally even over a dial-up connection. Narrowcast video signals work the same way, just instead of web pages, you get videos.

The advantages of narrowcasting television shows are great for the viewer. Best of all is that you are no longer tied to a schedule. Today, you have to either plan your evenings around your favorite TV shows, or have the patience and discipline to use your video recorder. VCRs are actually quite difficult to use, aside from the normal programming issues–you also have to have blank tapes ready, cued up to the right point, and have to remember to put those tapes in and set the timer after watching videos in between. DVRs, or Digital Video Recorders (like TiVo or Replay TV) are much easier, as the video is saved on a hard drive, and you don’t have to set and reset to program mode–but there are still difficulties and trade-offs, not to mention the expense of the machine and the legal issues surrounding the content once it is on your DVR.

Narrowcasting provides you with the best solution to scheduling: you don’t have to record anything. Throw out not just your VCR, but your DVR as well. Don’t bother to plan your Wednesday night to see The West Wing, and don’t bother to set your recorder to play it. Simply wait for the network or production studio to release the episode, then request to view it at any time you like. The show will start on demand, any time you want to see it. It is exactly like having any and every TV show already recorded on your computer/TV–just call it up and it plays. Pause it whenever you like. Fast-forward, rewind, play frame-by-frame, whatever.

What’s more, you are not just limited to whatever happens to be “on,” not just for the day, nor for the week, the month, the year or even the decade. Storage media and compression solve this problem.

I remember about ten years ago, I wanted to buy an external hard drive for my Mac. I bought one with a capacity of 105 MB, for about $300. Earlier this year, I noticed that a 120 GB hard drive could be bought for about the same price. In less than ten years, the price of hard drive storage had decreased a thousandfold. Similarly, the size and quality of video files has been progressing, though somewhat less spectacularly. MPEG-4 video streams are of far better quality and are much smaller in size than video of the past, and that will only get better.

By the time narrowcasting becomes feasible, it will not be difficult to store vast amounts of television shows and movies at various ‘nodes,’ or storage centers, across the country. Which means that when you ask for your video on demand, you won’t be limited to “this week’s shows,” but rather will have all of television and film, from the oldest Howdy Doody kinescopes to the latest CNN news briefs, at your fingertips.

This is where universal broadband comes in, allowing those vast stores of video to be accessed by anyone and everyone at any time they please.

All that remains after that is the economics of the beast. Depending on how it’s done, it could be a great success or a resounding failure. At some point, a system will be worked out–but will it be the best possible?

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