The Problem With, and Future of, Internet TV

I’ve tried Internet TV. That is to say, I signed up for the Joost Beta, back in the day. Slick interface, cool idea, but I was never impressed by the content available; the scant network programming they were able to get didn’t appeal to me, and the rest wasn’t any better. But, that wasn’t their big shortcoming.

The problem with most models of Internet TV, Joost included, is that they try to recreate the sensation of watching actual TV. This viewpoint suffers from the flawed assumption that TV is ideal the way it is.

TV is TV because of its roots. TV started out as radio with pictures. You broadcast your transmission, and if you want more than one broadcast, you broadcast on a different channel.

Subsequent upgrades to TV have tried to maintain its format. You choose your channel and you get shows in a constant stream. There’s not much you can do if there’s nothing good on. If you’re just turning on the TV at some random time, you’ll probably end up settling for something you didn’t really want to watch.

Enter the Internet

Some believe that the fundamental problem with current modes of TV is that it’s too costly to get a show on the air. “Everything is run by big networks,” they say, “who care more about lining their pockets than producing quality entertainment. Remove the cost barrier, and you get enlightening, entertaining and interesting shows produced by people who really care.”

As you may have guessed, these nutcases point to the internet as their saving grace.

Miro, formerly democracy.tv, certainly seems to believe this. When you download and install their software, you’ll find a number of channels conveniently installed by default, produced by regular people like yourself. Unfortunately, the primary and immediate effect of this is to dispelling the notion that TV made by just anyone will be good.

There are certainly exceptions — I myself am fairly partial to LoadingReadyRun*, which is certainly not network programming — but for the most part, unfunded internet TV is sort of crap. If we relate making videos to writing, and assume that the ratio of good amateur TV to bad is about equivalent to the ratio of good blogs to rubbish ones, we can guess about 99% of all these videos are not worth watching. The cost barrier sets a low standard, but apparently that’s still better than no standards.

A Temporary Solution

Screenshot of Miro

Of course, the solution to this is Bittorrent and pirated TV shows, which would be a perfect business proposition were it not for the fact that it’s illegal. Although I am an upstanding citizen who would never think to steal intellectual property, many of my peers are undeterred by this. Downloading things is extremely easy and rewarding and carries practically no probability of prosecution, but unfortunately it’s also a bit involved for someone who just wants to watch a bit of TV.

Re-enter Miro. Although the default programming is pretty bad, they don’t really advertise the fact that Miro will happily, and automatically, download torrents for you given a feed of torrent files. You can get these from tvRSS. Just pick a show and filter by one of VTV or EZTV, then right-click on the “Feed from Search” link and copy the URL. Then, create a new Miro channel and paste the link in. Voila!

The future of Internet TV

Miro will automatically download new additions to the feed, so you can watch the shows at your leisure, provided you leave it on. It’s really cool.

I predict the successful incarnation of Internet TV will be the one that comes close to mimicing this; letting you subscribe to content, automatically downloading new episodes, and letting you watch what you want, when you want it. Much better than that stodgy old regular TV.

What about Apple TV?

If all this is starting to sound a lot like Apple TV, that’s not surprising. They pay smarter people than I to come up with these things.

But so far as I’m aware, the Apple TV won’t automatically download shows. You have to do it yourself. If you just got home from a hard day at work and want to watch the latest episode of the Sopranos, it’s a bit of a drag to wait for it to download.

Also, the content on iTunes, while impressive, is not really complete. Lacking such a staple as the Simpsons surely puts a dent in its viability. iTunes also focuses on single downloads, not subscriptions. Finally, while iTunes has proven that it can be extremely profitable, it’s just too restrictive to be ubiquitus.

A few more predictions:

The internet TV tipping point will be initiated by someone big, because it ain’t cheap to get proper network programming rights. Microsoft seems likely, what with the head start of owning MSNBC and all, and of course Apple already has their fingers in the pie. The rapid development and adoption of it will probably be fuelled by competition between Microsoft’s offering and Apple TV. I’d love to see it be Google, though.

There will be ads. Don’t think you could escape ads. I predict that the shows that you watch on future TV will still have ads at the 10 and 20 minute marks. This is where the money for TV has always come from, and without it you’ve got nothing.

There will be fewer ads. More of the cost of producing and broadcasting will be paid by subscription fees, since Internet distribution will be

You will choose shows, not channels. There will still be channels which pay for the shows’ production, but they’ll be mostly in the background. You will have the options of watching the latest episode in any of the series for which you are subscribed.

The cost-for-entry barrier will be lowered anyway. With less risk of channel oversaturation, and the potential for small-time networks to get shows downloadable on the providers’ box, it will be easier to get on TV, which will hopefully mean better shows, in the end.

The future of internet TV will be shaped by Apple TV’s competition. When Apple is forced to confront its shortcomings, we’ll all be better off.

Of course, why wait for the future – or pay for Apple TV – when you can have something better today. Try Miro plus torrent feeds, and let me know how you like it.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the folks at LoadingReadyRun are actually from my hometown. In fact, I went to the same high school as most of them, although I didn’t know them personally. I even caught the same bus to UVic as that Graham guy, at the same stop, but we never talked. But, I do know people who are not from around here, who watch them without my having prompted them. I encourage you to check them out. Oh yeah, and they’re also already on Miro.

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