TV vs. Computer

by on September 20, 2007 · 9 comments

Yglesias is right about this:

Near the end of The New York Times’s article on new NBC TV downloads, Jeff Gaspin, NBC TV’s president, says “Our research shows that 83 per cent of the viewers would still rather watch on a TV than a PC.”

This doesn’t necessarily seem relevant to me. I would want to watch shows on as high-quality a display as possible but whether that display is a “monitor” connected to a computer or a “television” connected to a cable box doesn’t matter at all. I don’t, in practice, connect my TV to my computer but if you made it possible to download files that were worth watching on a large high-definition screen, then I’d do it in a minute.

Another aspect of consumers’ preference for TV-watching is a matter of convenience. That is, they want a compact, simple, and user friendly box that will fit on their TV stand and be operated with a remote. Right now, TVs fit that profile and computers don’t.

But that’s surely going to change in the next decade. Already, set-top boxes like the Apple TV provide a mostly TV-like experience. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to buy a user-friendly $200 set-top box with an ethernet port on the back that allows you to download and play video files. What’s lacking is a robust, user-friendly distribution network for large quantities of free video content. This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem because nobody is going to buy a set-top box unless there’s content available for it, but few people are going to produce content for a given network unless there’s a large enough installed base to make it worthwhile.

But sooner or later, someone’s going to figure out a way to solve the dillemma. It might take the form of a peer-to-peer network like Joost or it might be a next-generation version of Netflix, where you pay $20/month for access to an unlimited amount of Internet-based streaming video. Technologically speaking, the set-top box will be a “computer,” but consumers will simply perceive it as a cable box with a virtually unlimited number of “channels.”

Incidentally, it’s rather bizarre that TV networks are so determined to charge consumers for copies of their TV shows. TV networks have been giving TV shows away for free for half a century. They’re the world’s experts at monetizing eyeballs. And if anything, selling ads on the Internet should be easier because they can precisely measure the size and demographics of their audience. So why do they continue giving their TV shows for free over the air (and even spending millions of dollars advertising those free shows) while fretting about the possibility that someone might get the exact same TV shows for free via the Internet? They should be creating MPEG files featuring their TV shows with embedded ads and giving them away for free on peer-to-peer networks.

  • http://booksdofurnisharoom.blogspot.com X. Trapnel

    I think people understate the value of knowing (some of) your money is going to support the artists; this is a large part of why I subscribe to emusic, despite being virulently anti-copyright. I don’t think labels have quite realized that not only is their strategy annoying because of its belligerence, it’s also counterproductive insofar as it breaks down the prerational equivalence between label and artist that many consumers have/had.

  • http://booksdofurnisharoom.blogspot.com X. Trapnel

    I think people understate the value of knowing (some of) your money is going to support the artists; this is a large part of why I subscribe to emusic, despite being virulently anti-copyright. I don’t think labels have quite realized that not only is their strategy annoying because of its belligerence, it’s also counterproductive insofar as it breaks down the prerational equivalence between label and artist that many consumers have/had.

  • http://www.manifestdensity.net Tom

    This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem because nobody is going to buy a set-top box unless there’s content available for it, but few people are going to produce content for a given network unless there’s a large enough installed base to make it worthwhile.

    I think Tivo probably already counts. I’m stuck with a DirecTivo, so I’m not sure what the state of the art is. But I know that around the debut of series2 you could buy a USB wifi card for around $50 — I’m sure it could be done more cheaply now. That + firmware update = plenty set-top devices. The situation’s even rosier for digital cable company-supplied DVRs.

    But re: your final paragraph — I’m not sure I agree. DVD box sets of TV shows have been one of very few bright spots for TV purveyors over the last few years; it’s understandable that they’d be wary of losing that revenue.

    Interstitial advertising won’t work for digital downloads — people will always figure out a way to skip it — so the companies will have to work out a way to embed it during the show itself, perhaps using empty letterbox space or more product placement. I think they’re still trying to figure out how to sell that to clients, and how to get show creators to play along with it.

  • http://www.manifestdensity.net Tom

    This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem because nobody is going to buy a set-top box unless there’s content available for it, but few people are going to produce content for a given network unless there’s a large enough installed base to make it worthwhile.

    I think Tivo probably already counts. I’m stuck with a DirecTivo, so I’m not sure what the state of the art is. But I know that around the debut of series2 you could buy a USB wifi card for around $50 — I’m sure it could be done more cheaply now. That + firmware update = plenty set-top devices. The situation’s even rosier for digital cable company-supplied DVRs.

    But re: your final paragraph — I’m not sure I agree. DVD box sets of TV shows have been one of very few bright spots for TV purveyors over the last few years; it’s understandable that they’d be wary of losing that revenue.

    Interstitial advertising won’t work for digital downloads — people will always figure out a way to skip it — so the companies will have to work out a way to embed it during the show itself, perhaps using empty letterbox space or more product placement. I think they’re still trying to figure out how to sell that to clients, and how to get show creators to play along with it.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    I don’t think the difference is as small as you think. A computer is usually under the control of one individual, and is set up in a station not conducive to the kind of communal watching that a TV is.

    Thus, TV is more social, and that’s the big difference.

    That’s why the set top box is in such a no man’s land–it’s part of each, and not all of either…

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    I don’t think the difference is as small as you think. A computer is usually under the control of one individual, and is set up in a station not conducive to the kind of communal watching that a TV is.

    Thus, TV is more social, and that’s the big difference.

    That’s why the set top box is in such a no man’s land–it’s part of each, and not all of either…

  • Peter

    IN 2008 THE BOY NAMED DAVID WON THE GAME AGAINST THE MISSISSAUGA MAJORS BLUE. A FANTASTIC WIN, HE WAS CHOSEN THE GO TO THE MLB! THEN BECAME THE DODGERS BEST PLAYER!!!!

  • mfarney

    Many people have debated over this and there's no winner in the end. I for one renounced watching TV five years ago. I have all i need on my computer. The down side is that I go out with my friends in a bar and I watch the TV that's hanging on the wall instead of interacting.
    _____________
    Mathew Farney – Web Hosting

  • mfarney

    Many people have debated over this and there's no winner in the end. I for one renounced watching TV five years ago. I have all i need on my computer. The down side is that I go out with my friends in a bar and I watch the TV that's hanging on the wall instead of interacting.
    _____________
    Mathew Farney – Web Hosting

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