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.

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