A very remarkable thing started happening late in 2005, and with the New Year and the approach of the annual CES convention in Las Vegas (which I'm enroute to) all rolled into one blog, here's my prediction: 2006 will be looked upon as the year the walls that have been erected to protect TV stations in the U.S. will start to come down. The trend that I'm referring to here is the distribution of network television content -- from the big boys of CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox -- using new technology that bypasses the local VHF and UHF TV stations, also known as "affiliates."
Sound like something that should have happened a long time ago? It should have, but it hasn't. Just look at the evolution of satellite-TV in the late 1990s, when network TV finally became available on DSS and Dish. Rather than allowing a few "superstations" -- such as the New York and L.A. affiliates of the big networks -- from dominating satellite, the networks insisted that satellite carriers add capacity for literally thousands of channels, so that, for example, viewers of "Desperate Housewives" located in Elmira, New York could see it as broadcast from their local affiliate, WENY-TV, rather than from WABC-TV in New York City. Thus, at any given moment during prime time, the satellites of DSS and Dish are literally carrying hundreds of channels each with the exact same program from a network feed. Why go to this trouble? To keep the flow of commercial revenue to the networks' affiliate TV stations intact.
So though it may seem obvious that someday people will be able to download their favorite TV programs to an iPod for portable viewing, or watch TV programs over the Internet, it was with some surprise and amazement that the networks chose late 2005 to start distributing their programs through non-affiliate TV station outlets.
First came the news from Apple and ABC/Disney that to get the ball rolling with the new video-enabled iPod, five ABC sitcoms, including "Desperate Housewives," would be available for download at $1.99 a pop. Then, CBS announced that it would webcast "March Madness" NCAA basketball games. And within a few weeks NBC announced availability of episodes of TV shows including "The Office" and "Law & Order" at Apple Computer’s iTunes store.
Taken together, this is not exactly the promise we've been hearing for years -- watch anything you want, anytime you want, anywhere you want, conveniently and seamlessly. But it's a very big small step.
For designers of portable video players, set top boxes, and related equipment, the significance of this sea change cannot be understated. As more content becomes available direct-from-network to the video devices of the future, the challenge to build these devices with quick and clever user interfaces, easy access, and intuitive controls will become all the more paramount.
Have A Happy New Year!