The 5 Most Over-Hyped “Future of TV” Topics

Editor’s note: Jeremy Toeman is a founder of Dijit Media, a startup whose vision is to create the ultimate “hyperpersonalised social TV guide” mobile experience. Jeremy has over 11 years experience in the convergence of digital media, mobile entertainment, social entertainment, social TV and consumer technology working with companies like Sling Media, Mediabolic, Boxee, Clicker, VUDU, and more. Follow him on Twitter @jtoeman.

From some of the chatter out there, it seems like the prerequisites to have “deep knowledge” about the TV industry is to have ever watched TV.  Yes, that sounds pretty cynical, but I see post after post espousing wisdom on topics that are so misguided it makes my head shake – involuntarily.  While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinions, there’s just something to be said for a little research, a little fact checking, and deep diving with industry experts.  I think the “future of TV” industry at large would benefit greatly from a little more of the above, and a little less jumping on bandwagons.

Accordingly, here are the 5 topics I see on practically a daily basis that are just plain tired, and should be put to rest.

1. The Future of TV is about Voice Control and Gestures

In the future, you’ll tell your TV to change to channel 702, ask it when the next Tom Cruise movie is on, and wave your hand to change the channel.  Really?  This is exciting?  First, when it comes to gestures, the *best case scenario* is using gestures for the most simple of functionality, such as channel/volume adjustments.  What’s the “when’s the next Tom Cruise movie on?” gesture (protip: you jump on your couch).  It’s a model that works great for games, and not much else.

And as far as talking to your TV, whether it’s Jack Donaghy’s awesome voice-controlled TV for Kabletown, or this funny commercial, it’s clearly an easy topic to play around with:

But is there value in it? Some, definitely.  I do not, in any way, question the fact that a well-executed voice interface to change channels, perform searches, etc, sounds great.  But is that really revolutionary?  Considering that TV watching is primarily done with a second screen (iPad, smart phone, etc) in hand these days, the ability to search without using the awful on-screen interfaces as provided by set-top box makers has already improved dramatically.  Searching for show listings, actors, etc, using a dedicated app or even just google is a marked improvement.  I don’t consider a voice-enabled search “revolutionary” at this stage.

2. The Future of TV is all about Social TV

Literally every “big” show event these days has a followup about how it’s the most gigantic moment in the history of #SocialTV ever.  Well, considering this is a fairly new thing, and more people are still signing up to services like Twitter and trying out Social TV apps, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise now, should it?  Of course Game of Thrones broke records, just like how the American Idol season finale will later this year.  As will the Olympics, then next year’s Superbowl.  But here’s the thing: other than huge events, app makers and broadcasters alike are still trying to figure out what Social TV really means.

It’s clearly not about check-ins, that’s very 2011 thinking.  And it’s not going to be about measuring real-time tweets (hello West Coast, sorry, your Tweets just don’t count), which is very 2012 thinking.  There’s something happening in the “engagement with TV” space, but it’s probably a much richer experience than what we’re talking about.  Oh, and so we don’t forget to address it – nothing, not a single thing, in the field of social/real-time engagement works particularly well when it comes to “catch up” TV.  Which there will remain plenty of for years and years to come.

3. The Future of TV is all about Cord Cutters

Auntie May just cancelled cable and bought a Roku, what the what?  Cable is doomed, it’s like newspapers and the music industry.  Slow down folks, not so fast.  First and foremost, not a single report from any credible source has ever painted a picture that cord cutting is having, nor will have, any impact on the industry.  At an average price of $80/month, cable (and satellite and telco, but I’ll just say cable from this point forward – less typing), is about the best deal in entertainment you can find on a dollars/hour basis.  Most Roku, WDTV, and Apple TV owners still have a paid cable service, as do most Netflix and Hulu subscribers.

Additionally, the reason TV != music is about distribution and lockup agreements.  Sure, artists had labels, and labels distributed their music via CDs to retail stores, and there are a lot of analogies to the TV industry.  Except for the lockups, bundles, affiliates, and a dozen or so other participants in the TV production-to-consumption cycle.  TV shows can’t start their own distribution service – because 90% of TV shows are made by the folks who own the distribution side.  And the networks can’t just go direct to consumers, they’d sacrifice huge amounts of money to do so.  Like billions huge.  And for what?  To directly engage with (read: provide customer service for) people who get pissy if their DVR cuts off the end credits one time on a show they don’t even care about. Yeah, sounds great. This is highly related to Death Topic 5 below, so more in a moment.

4. The Future of TV is all about Apps

Just imagine a world where instead of browsing channels or searching for things, you can download apps for it all.  ABC? App. NBC? App. Fox? App. Bravo? Part of that NBC App (or maybe it’s own). TBS? App. SyFy? Same as Bravo, maybe.  How about the shows themselves?  Where’s Seinfeld?  Could be it’s own app!  Or, since TBC has syndication rights (well, some of them), it’ll be in their app.  And I’m sure NBC still owns some rights too, so maybe there instead.  Or possibly it’ll get split up amongst each of the stakeholders, on a per-season basis.  This is the future, and it’s awesome.

If awesome means terrible.

As I’ve said before, TV isn’t about work, it isn’t about search, it isn’t about finding things and effort – it’s about escape. TV should not work like the Web nor like my smart phone any more than my microwave should work like my smart phone.  Yes, we could use some better paradigms for discovering content, and integrating with second screen apps sounds like a good idea in many ways.  But that doesn’t mean I want an app per channel, show, network, etc.

5. The Future of TV is the Death of the Television Industry As We Know It

As I wrote above, TV is dying, it just must be dying!  The kids are watching lots of videos on the YouTubes, and since the Internet by definition is disruptive, it must impact TV.  After all, the TV services business is a $200+ billion dollar a year industry, and if you factor in manufacturing, production, distribution, and other related costs, it easily scales past $500 billion.  And this still doesn’t account for the internal marketplaces within each of the players.  That’s a lot of money for the Internet to kick the snot out of and hand over to the engineers in Silicon Valley!

Well, what if it doesn’t?  What if all the brains and the coding and the apps and the investments can’t topple this old school, well-loaded, not technically unsophisticated industry?  What if instead of disruption, the contributions of the Internet and the tech sector simply contribute to more growth?  After all, that’s what happened with cable in the first place, then VCR, then DVD, …  Sure, some of the deal-making might change, and we should expect to see the players evolve, grow, and of course fade.  Netflix is larger than any US cable operator, maybe they’ll take one of them out?  Or maybe the cable companies will expand into competitive regions?  Maybe the Xbox will be the next generation of set top boxes, with no need for truckrolls?  Lots of potential, lots of Internet contribution, but dying?  I doubt it.

In conclusion…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all doom and gloom for speculation.  I love some good speculation.  But the above topics are worn thin, dried out, and only mildly less entertaining to read about than tech bloggers getting into spats with each other.

There’s a ton of innovation on the second screen that goes far beyond Social TV.  Future TV interfaces are coming and changing, and Voice Control will play a role, but what else should we expect?  There’s no real evidence that cord cutting is happening, and sure, it might come, but as with all things, it’ll either be massively slower or faster than all typical predictions, so let’s move past that point.  What else is out there?