You likely are one of three types of TV watchers:
- You are a perfectly satisfied subscriber of cable or satellite – or even over-the-air – TV.
- You want to throw up each month when you see your cable bill and wish you could cut the cord, but you don’t know how you’d see all your favorite shows.
- You never watch “TV” on the TV. Anything you want to watch, you watch on the computer.
No matter which of the three categories you fall into, access to the Web is becoming integral to the TV watching experience, either as supplementary via a laptop or iPad on your lap or increasingly through the TV itself via a connected HDTV. According to Display Search, 17 percent of all HDTVs sold this year will be connected; by 2013, a majority of HDTVs will connect you to the Internet.
Even if you have a “dumb” TV, you can access the net via a connected Blu-ray player, the vast majority of which are connected, or a streaming media set-top box such as Apple TV, Roku, Vudu, Boxee, WD Live, NetGear and recently, two forms of Google TV: three Sony Bravia LCD HDTVs and a Blu-ray player, or the Logitech Revue Google TV set-top box.
All this connected hardware is nice, you say, but what is there to watch and, more importantly, can I cut my cable cord? The answers are: “nearly everything” and “not quite”.
Accessing the Web on your TV is an idea almost as old as the Web itself. First came WebTV in 1996, which allowed you to surf the Web (albeit really slowly) on your TV and send/receive email. WebTV was followed into the market by AOLTV in 2000, but the product never quite worked right and AOL pulled its plug in 2002. In October that same year, a more viable PC-in-the-living-room arrived, Microsoft’s Windows Media PC, sold first by HP in three models priced between $1,350 and $2,000.
All these attempts were designed to bring a PC-like experience to the TV, a concept based on the mistaken belief that we wanted to duplicate the office-based two-foot interactive PC experience in our passive 10-foot TV living room experience.
A more modern Web TV/PC convergence, focusing on bringing multimedia content from the Web and our hard drives to the TV, began with Steve Jobs’ professed “hobby,” AppleTV, in March 2007, followed by similar set-top boxes from Roku and Vudu in May 2008.
But what truly ignited mainstream consumer interest in smart TV was the launch of the Yahoo! Widgets platform for HDTVs, first unveiled on the Samsung Series 6000 and 7000 LCD HDTVs at the end of March 2009, followed quickly by other Yahoo! Widget-enabled sets. All HDTV makers now make connected TVs, using either Yahoo! Widgets or their own proprietary platform.
Instead of PC-like activities such as email and Web browsing, these new connected HDTVs and Blu-ray players allowed us access to music and video – professional (TV as well as movies from subscription streaming sites such as Netflix, CinemaNow and Blockbuster), user-generated, and our own – downloaded or streamed from both the Web and pulled from our own PCs.
But all these TV/PC/Web convergence attempts treated traditional TV watching as one thing and viewing Web- or PC-based streaming content as an addendum. Google TV is the first attempt to unify these heretofore segregated content sources, but this unification is still somewhat more PC- than TV-centric.
Not So Free Web TV
Does all of this suddenly accessible Web-based TV content help you clip the cable cord? Almost.
Nearly every cable and broadcast TV channel has a supplementary Web site where you can find episodes of previously broadcast content, either clips of, the entire program, or both. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait at least a day or longer for a broadcast to be posted online.
Since the internet wants content to be free, most of this TV content is provided only with limited commercial interruption, usually a single 30-second spot. The only question was how to find the programs you wanted.
In an attempt to help organize this diverse TV content, the Hulu streaming video service was launched in March 2008 with ad-supported TV content from ABC, NBC and Fox. This past January, Boxee launched its TV-content aggregating software, which added social networking to help you find shows you and your friends recommend. While Hulu and Boxee were designed for viewing TV on the PC or mobile device, both have been moving toward getting their service to your HDTV. There are rumors Hulu will be added to the Roku set-top box sometime this fall, and the Boxee Box set-top box is now available for pre-order.
Google TV goes aggregating a step further. Your cable or satellite box gets connected not directly to a dumb TV or AV receiver, but to the Logitech Revue set-top box or Sony Internet TV Blu-ray player. Thanks to this inter-connection, Google TV software now lets you conduct an integrated search – both your cable/satellite box (including an integrated DVR) and the Web at the same time. A search for “CSI,” for instance, will yield show times results, both on broadcast and on Web sites.
However, don’t expect ad-based Web-based TV content to remain free to you for long.
By now you’ve heard of the scrum between Cablevision and Fox, which has resulted in the blackout of all Fox stations on Cablevision systems in the New York-Philadelphia area. This is just the latest of an increasing number of such broadcaster/carrier disputes. Traditional network broadcasters, faced with dwindling advertising revenue and increased programming costs, and faced with competition from original programming on an increasing number of cable channels such as USA, HBO, TNT, Showtime and AMC, are attempting to squeeze more cash from mainstream cable subscribers. Faced with the need and desire to increase revenues – after all, these network TV channels don’t spend millions of dollars per episode for their health – “free” TV online is unlikely to remain free for long.
This past May, the all-you-can-watch $9.99/month Hulu Plus service was unveiled. But all but Disney, of which Steve Jobs is the majority owner, and Fox have resisted Jobs’ 99 cent TV rental iTunes offer, believing such a low price would water down lucrative syndication deals. Networks simply do not want to undersell their expensive-to-produce content.
One future possibility for Web-based TV content, especially as retransmission fee
battles between networks and cable/satellite TV carriers escalate: a fee structure based on when you view a show – a minimal fee for archived shows, a slightly higher fee for shows recently broadcast or in-season, a premium fee to watch the show simulcast with or same day/night as the broadcast version. Even with these streaming fees, cherry-picking content online is likely to be cheaper than paying your local cable monopoly for 10 channels you don’t watch for the one channel you do.
But with all this free (for now) content, one important reason for maintaining even a basic cable connection remains: local programming, especially news and sports. Nearly all local news outlets have attendant Web sites; while you may not be able to view the actual local 6 o’clock news at 6 o’clock online, their Web sites, mobile apps and Yahoo! widgets would allow you to at least to stay informed. Or, you can simply hook up an antenna to get local HDTV channels.
Sports is the biggest stumbling block to cutting the cable cord. True, all four major professional leagues – the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL – offer online game viewing via annual subscription for between $100-$200 a season. But all include local blackouts, which diminish their cable-replacement value – although for $19.95, you can buy Web access to all the upcoming MLB league championship and World Series games with no blackout, likely an attractive alternative to fans affected by the Fox/Cablevision blackout. If not, there’s always the local bar.
An Unequal Viewing Party
Even if saving money is important, you may be wary of cutting the cable cord if you’ve got golden eyes and platinum ears.
Only recently have most network sites begun to make their streaming content available in full 1080i or even 1080p resolution. But higher resolution does not necessarily mean video quality equal to cable or satellite – digital compression can degrade the final result on your big-screen HDTV, and wireless streaming of such high resolution content often annoyingly stalls for buffering.
Free (commercial) internet content is still largely in standard definition
What you lose more, however, is on the audio side. With video such a thick bit of data moving through such thin broadband pipes, full surround sound audio is lost. While audio on the original master recording may start off as 5.1, it is compressed and comes into your home device in two-channels. Dolby Pro Logic II reconstructs this two-channel signal into some sort of faux surround.
Only one set-top box delivers full discrete Dolby Digital 5.1 – Vudu, which employs Dolby’s latest Dolby Digital Plus decoding, which claims to reduce bits but maintain discrete five-channel reproduction. Dolby is hoping other set-top box makers include the Dolby Digital Plus encoder to deliver full discrete surround sound for all online TV shows and movies.
And Rarely Do The Twains Meet
Wisely, and unlike the first WebTV attempts, none of these set-top boxes try to duplicate the PC experience. Yes, there are multimedia and messaging apps such as Flickr and Twitter available on both Yahoo! Widget-enabled HDTVs and most media streamer set-top boxes, but what you really want to do is access the net while watching TV to, say, shop, for instance, or check Wikipedia or IMDb for info on a particular actor, or ESPN on how that touchdown affects your football fantasy league team.
But when you’re watching TV, you have no access to the Web via your Roku/Vudu/et al media streamer set-top box. When you’re watching streaming Web content from your Roku/Vudu/et al media streamer set-top box, you lose your regular TV.
Google TV breaks through the barrier and connects these walled gardens, but at a price. Yes, you get a fully-functional Web browser on your big-screen HDTV, and you can view a TV program and surf the Web simultaneously. But Google TV’s “Dual View” isn’t automatic – you have to push the remote control Dual View key before you go to the Google TV Home screen. Worse, in Dual View, the TV picture is relegated to a tiny PIP in the bottom right corner.
Yahoo! Widgets HDTVs take a different simultaneous TV-watching/Web surfing approach – widgets appear on a vertical third of your screen, but cover that vertical third rather than pushing the whole TV picture into a smaller but still watchable view on the remaining two-thirds of your HDTV screen.
And although there are nearly 70 Yahoo! Widgets, none deliver Web-based TV programming. However, this past January, Yahoo! opened its Widget development software kit to the public. Over the next two months, the Yahoo! Widget SDK was downloaded more than 4,000 times, which likely means hundreds of more new widgets are on the way. Whether or not these will include a Hulu or Boxee or network-specific TV widget remains to be seen.
Apple TV bets on an all-streaming model
Boxee provides a true web experience and one of the best user interface
Google TV works with Cable and Sat. boxes
Since the Boxee Box is not yet available, it remains to see whether or not you’ll be able to surf and view simultaneously.
There’s one other roadblock to enjoying a combined Web/TV experience: the remote control. The Logitech Revue or diNovo Mini and Sony Internet TV remotes are QWERTY-centric. It might be awkward to control basic volume/channel functions with one hand with remotes for either. Both lack a traditional 3 x 4 numerical keypad array to casual thumb channel numbers to channel jump. To go to a specific channel, you have to use the QWERTY numeric row. Designers should take a lesson from cellphones and Vizio – a remote control with a slide-out QWERTY and standard one-handed remote array on top – or Boxee’s two-sided remote solution. Fortunately, iPhone and Android smartphone Google TV remote control apps are less QWERTY-centric.
But all these experiments in Web/TV convergence merely try to emulate traditional experiences in new forms. In an upcoming post, we’ll explore how smart TVs combine to present whole new TV experiences.