TV is a screen mode

This paper was written in late 2005 for publication in a book commissioned by IDS, the television sales house, on the future of TV.

‘A bit is just a bit, as time goes by’

When we look back at the early years of this new century one of the things that will surprise and entertain us will be the way that dedicated encoding and transmission networks were used to deliver modulated signals to specialised hardware, just so we could show moving images with synchronised sound on single-use screens.

That billions of such devices were constructed, along with sophisticated and expensive transmission networks, will astonish our children, who will view the history of television with the same sort of awe and slight revulsion as we consider the history of dentistry. ‘How could they have put up with such wasteful and painful technologies?’, they will ask. ‘Why didn’t they do it properly? Hadn’t they heard of the Internet when they wasted all that money on digital terrestrial television?’

And we, the old and infirm, will have no answer to give them, because we grew up before the digital age, the central insight of which is that since ‘data is data’ networks should simply move bits around and not worry about what they are supposed to ‘mean’.

With fast networks for moving bits around, powerful computers for storing, manipulating and displaying the data those bits encode, and an appropriate set of standards for handling the different data types and identifying them at the receiving end you don’t need dedicated hardware or a specialised transmission network to do television – you just need to tap into the data stream and pull out the programmes you want to watch.

While this has serious implications for the manufacturers of TV sets, and should seriously worry   the providers of terrestrial, cable and satellite transmission services, its real impact will be felt by those who commission and create television programmes and those who have until now used those programmes as a way to deliver audiences to advertisers. Once television is just another sort of data transmitted over the Internet little of the existing industry will survive unchanged.

Change Below the Surface

For most viewers, most of the time, television has changed little in the past twenty years. My dad, in his seventies, doesn’t know or care that the only thing his new widescreen TV and Freeview box have in common with the BBC of his youth is that at some point a camera was pointed at a scene: he sees moving images on a screen and calls it television, even though the entire technical infrastructure used to create and deliver those images to his home has been ripped out and replaced.

The commodification of the television signal, turning it into just another data feed like email or web pages, will mark a tipping point at which at which all the changes behind the scenes inevitably shift consumer behaviour. This is partly because it will alter the economic model behind TV production in ways that force change, partly because it creates a vast array of new possibilities for TV, allowing new entrants to challenge the incumbents.

The key technology is IPTV, television over the Internet.   IPTV is to television what voice over IP (VOIP) is to the phone companies: a disruptive technology that invalidates their business model and all their planning. In the TV world it is the logical endpoint of the development process that began with digital editing suites and continued with digital transmission and the addition of set-top boxes to conventional televisions. For systems using IPTV the television signal is just another data type to be identified and decoded at the point of delivery before being displayed on any convenient screen.

In the US cable firm Broadreach [check] are already using Microsoft’s IPTV, and here in the UK BT will shortly begin trials using it to deliver TV over broadband.   For consumers this turns television into a screen mode, a choice to show the video full-screen.

Once we watched ‘the television’, short for the television set. Now we watch ‘television’, short for the television broadcast, delivered to a screen.   Soon even that may not be worth noting, just as we rarely specify whether a book we’re reading is hardback or paperback, perfect bound or glued. The new world may seem like the old – people will still be looking at screens, listening to audio, watching programming – but it is in fact completely different.

Invisible Technologies

If you go into a café today you are likely to notice the ‘third space’ workers with their laptops, but you will barely register those who are texting or talking on a mobile phone. Key technologies have a way of disappearing from view, becoming invisible as they are absorbed into the routines of daily life, and in the near future this will happen to network connectivity just as it has already happened to water, gas and electricity – at least in the industrialised West.

This will have a significant on the media landscape, because delivering information to people will become trivially simple, unlike today where ownership or control of a distribution channel like a satellite or printing press is a key determinant of what gets said to whom.

At the same time   the devices we use in everyday life, the ones that really shape our social interactions or determine our business effectiveness, will become less obvious. We will stop seeing them, and may indeed spend a lot more time talking to them than we do now, as voice control begins to replace keyboards for many tasks.

This does not mean that there will be no screens. There will screens on wall, screens on stands, screens on desks, rolled-up screens in pockets and screens in the covers of hardback books. Any flat surface will be – at least potentially – a display device. Immersive environments – what is often called ‘virtual reality’ – may be in use for some specialist applications, and there may even be leading edge holographic displays, but there seems little likelihood that screens will be abandoned since they offer so many benefits for the viewer.

Of course none of these screens will be a ‘television’ as we use the term today, because the idea that a screen would be dedicated to the display of full-screen video will seem quaint and rather absurd. Yet each and every one will be a potential television, and whether any of them will be used as such is largely up to the industry to decide. If it makes the transition to digital successfully then there is a good chance that they will be.

From Emotional Engagement to Multi-Player Soaps

One of the issues facing television programme makers is the ‘drive to live’, the attempt to make programmes that people will want to experience in real-time and as part of a wider audience of fellow viewers. It is seen as a key to retaining anything like the current advertising model, where ads can be inserted into the timeline and hope to retain some of the viewer’s attention.   The two genres most often called on here are live events, principally sporting events, and shows with a significant degree of interactivity. Big Brother, offering both, is of course a prime example.

If a viewer wants to experience a live event or interact with a show then a multi-screen world makes things a lot simpler for them. The chances of being in the vicinity of a screen are greatly increased, so there are fewer excuses for missing the show. It is also much easier, with screen-in-screen technology, to multitask. This is something that millions of people do already if they have TV tuners built into their home computers, and once TV is just another data type it will become commonplace.

The downside is that this inevitably diminishes the emotional impact of whatever is being watched, since it requires little effort to view. Leaving work early, rushing home through the rain and collapsing onto the sofa in time for EastEnders or the kick-off is a lot more significant and engaging than simply opening up another window on your PC screen.

Fortunately there are other possibilities, both for ‘event television’ and for forms of interactivity and engagement never dreamed of by soap producers. They come from the games world, where ‘MMPORGs’ -massively multi-player online role playing games – occupy large chunks of the emotional life of millions of people around the world. Whether firmly located in the sword and sorcery world, as with Everquest, grounded in a successful franchise as with Star Wars Galaxies, or an extension of a PC game, as with Sims Online, these environments create a whole new zone for interactivity and engagement.   It is one that Microsoft is actively exploring with its increasingly popular Xbox Live online gaming service.

The game world is also a prototypical online arena and performance space and many ‘sporting’ events already take place there.   Games conventions have vast audiences ‘watching’ players of Unreal Tournament or Halo both online and as part of an audience with large screen displays. This provides as much a sense of presence as watching football on TV, yet is not taken seriously because there are no ‘meatspace’ players.

Many of these virtual worlds are carefully scripted, with producers and directors creating in-game scenarios and situations for the players, guiding their experiences and enhancing their pleasure and commitment to the game. Early in 2005 a group of friends playing a detachment of Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars Galaxies were surprised to receive a formal inspection visit from Darth Vader himself, an event designed by the game producers to increase their commitment to the game world.

It is only a matter of time before the boundaries between TV production and in-game management start to blur, especially once we have photorealistic game worlds; only a matter of time before we see multi-player soap operas where the core characters are ‘worn’ by actors but others can join in and shape the action.    These multi-player soaps will require new skills of actors and writers, able to manage characters and story arcs so that the gameworld remains consistent, engaging and believable, but these skills are already being developed outside the TV industry.

This does not mean that existing forms of screen-based entertainment will die, but they may diminish in importance. The cinema changed theatre, recorded music changed the concert experience, television changed story-telling, and online will change all of these things.

From Here to There

The technologies which will shape television in the near future are already in place. As William Gibson pointed out, ‘the future has already arrived, it’s just unevenly distributed’.   Television’s future, in technical terms, is clearly delineated.

Yet despite the claims of the futurologists there is no real appetite for change among the viewing public. Rather, people are learning to cope with the multi-channel, digital world that has been created for them and thrown at them.   The opinion that ‘there are more channels, but nothing on’ reflects an understanding that the core values of television in the 1970’s and 1980’s have not been preserved today.

This leaves the television industry in a quandary. The affordances of today’s technologies, as already described, are so deep and broad that almost anything is possible. If you want TV on your mobile then it is there; if you want to be able to watch any programme from any channel on your computer or have it delivered from your home media centre to your plasma screen, then that’s fine. Pause or record live TV; interact via your remote control or PC or mobile phone; skip or replay ads as you go – it is your choice.

But nobody is yet putting the technologies together in a way that commands the attention of large audiences over time, and nobody has yet found a way to engage with the unformed desires of the viewers and give them what they don’t yet realise they want. Until viewers are persuaded to shift their own understanding of what television offers, they will continue to look to the past and regret its passing, instead of embracing the future.   And while they do that, there is no possibility of a sustainable commercial model emerging which will fund programme development or cover the costs of promoting and distributing the television shows of tomorrow.

Imagining 2020

Predictions are always dangerous, but there are times when the future opens up to us like a path glimpsed in the wild wood.   The changes in the technologies which underpin television are already happening. Indeed, many of them passed almost unnoticed.   The changes they will wreak on the industry and on the ways media are consumed have yet to work through, but they are starting to become visible.

In the imagined 2020 screens are everywhere you might want them to be. Embedded in walls and tabletops and fridges and mirrors, rolled up in pockets and folded away like maps for use on the move.   Some prefer projection systems that draw images directly onto the retina using low powered lasers, but the need to wear an eyepiece means they never became mainstream and they are largely seen as an affectation except when worn for work.

The analogue broadcast was turned off in 2012 as promised, freeing up large amounts of radio spectrum for data services.   This was so successful that the digital multiplexes were abandoned in 2015, somewhat to the surprise of investors in Freeview and other channels, when it was realised that it made no sense to dedicate bandwidth to TV signals. Even Sky turned its satellites into network supernodes providing IP-based information, some of which was streamed video, leaving it up to the receiving devices to decide whether to go into TV mode with one image fullscreen or just add the programming to the data flow.

One side-effect of this is that there are no TV channels as such, although   BBC, ITV and Sky have become the UK’s main programming brands, a guarantee of quality on your soap opera or sports commentary just as the name Unilever tells you something about your soap – or Heinz about your spaghetti.

Radio stations have gone too, replaced by multiply indexed programmes available to download to your portable player or stream on demand. If you’re nostalgic then you can ask your system to give you a ‘Capital Radio’ or ‘Radio 4’ type schedule, and some nostalgia buffs have even created a neural network that claims to offer the authentic James Boyle Radio 4 experience from early 2000.

What has not changed is the need for the development and production of content in a variety of formats, including audio-only, video, multimedia and interactive.   Cameras and microphones are used to record performances, these performances are mixed and manipulated and post-produced to create works which are then communicated to audiences. But the idea of broadcast and the channel model are gone.

The End of Broadcast

Broadcast was always an historical anomaly, one waiting for a technological fix. Now the broadcast age is over and material of all sorts is published and then made available in ‘the spew’ (the name, used by SF writer Neal Stephenson to describe the flow of data on the world’s networks, finally described a reality in around 2015).   Episodes of the soaps are no longer sent out at a pre-determined time as modulations of analogue radio signals to be picked up by dedicated hardware, and many people prefer to experience Coronation Street as a character in one of the online worlds, where they can pop into a virtual Rovers Return to catch up with the gossip and even chat to Ken or Deidre.

These major changes required significant shifts in the regulatory environment, especially once there were no broadcasters left to be licensed. Ofcom was wound up in 2020 after massive pressure from industry and consumers unhappy at the way it swallowed up money, effort and time and delivered nothing that anyone was happy with.

The Media Services Agency, a self-regulating body modelled on the Financial Services Agency, replaced it, incorporating older bodies including the Advertising Standards Authority, the Press Complaints Commission and the various Ombudsmen around the place. While the MSA is far from perfect it is agile and able to deal with the new media ecosystem far more effectively than a government agency locked into 20th century modes of thinking.   One of its core innovations, the ‘replybot’, automatically pops up a ‘right to reply’ window when content from an offending publisher is displayed on a screen.

Channel 4’s purchase by AOL Yahoo! and its subsequent emergence as the company’s Big Brother Division, running twenty simultaneous real world BB homes and a number of virtual ones in the major online environments, though surprising, left the BBC as the main source of public service material, and the public were remarkably sanguine about the decision to turn the BBC into a subscription service and get rid of the license fee and royal charter in 2018.

The corporation’s income had dropped substantially throughout the 2010s as people got rid of their TV sets and tuner cards, and once the signal was turned off in 2015 it was effectively bankrupt. Since there was no way people were going to pay a tax on multimedia content it was felt that as a charitable foundation, limited in its commercial role but committed to public service, it was far more likely to survive and retain public trust.