It’s time to rethink the definition of TV

It’s time to redefine what a TV set is, because in a world of glowing panels, calling some televisions and others computer/mobile/tablet screens makes no sense.

Case in point: Yesterday I predicted in Bloomberg Businessweek that Apple will soon launch a real TV device (not its current little streaming gadget). While this news has been bandied about for more than a year, I suggested Apple may carve out a new niche of secondary, smaller screens. Why?

First, big televisions are already beautiful, and an infrequent purchase decision. It will be very difficult for Apple to get you to swap out the monster screen you bought two years ago…  Second, Apple’s real play will be content sales, not TV hardware profits … there is huge bloat in what we subscribe to, and we pay cable companies about $74 billion annually for this privilege. Add the $70 billion in TV ad spending, and Apple could grab a slice of a $144 billion video market.

These are all easy bets — Apple is brilliant at reinventing products, and if most U.S. consumers have upgraded to gorgeous, large flat-panel sets, then creating a secondary market of video devices for the home is a no-brainer. But beyond this silly little prediction is a question: What are TVs, and why do consumers love them so much?

Yes, households are cutting cable subscriptions and CNN’s ratings are in the tank. But Nielsen notes U.S. consumers still watch more than 5 hours of video each day — and if you include computers, tablets, and phone video usage with TV sets (the only thing Nielsen tracks in ratings is video received via televisions), then video usage is way up. When you read reports that households now hold slightly fewer television sets (about 3 per household in the U.S.), remember “TV” is an arbitrary delineation of the broader video screen category. When I hear social media gurus say no one watches TV anymore, and then link to the videos they are producing for clients, I laugh.

Nielsen is as darkly responsible for this as anyone, since Nielsen is the organization in charge of reporting on (and really, defending) traditional TV impression metrics. The migration of consumers to other devices is real, but if Nielsen begins to blur its ratings for broadcast TV and cable, advertisers howl. So one “slice” of screens remains labeled televisions, while the growing glut of other digital panels is termed something else. This device demarcation makes as much sense as print publishers reporting on audiences based on the different thicknesses of paper stock.

Video usage is a function of personal space

So what is television? How does a video differ? Several years ago I wrote a guest post at Brandflakes for Breakfast that consumers have three modalities of intaking information in their “personal space,” from social space at about 10 feet away (a campfire distance perhaps used by ancestors for telling stories late at night) to a personal space of about 3 feet (the visual distance you have for holding a tool in your hand) to the most intimate space near your body (the distance of a whispering lover or child). Today movies/TV panels fit the distant space, laptops and mobile handsets and tablets fit the work-tool-in-hand space, and cell phones whisper in our ears.

Our human consumption of media has not really changed since we gathered around fires with our cave-people ancestors. We need inputs from a distance, from our hands, and from our ears. We love video because sitting back to listen to tall tales is a storyform that goes back 50,000 years. Apple will launch TV panels because there’s an innate urge in each of us to take in images. The very definition of TV will change as television sets and LCD panels and computer screens and tablets and windows with shifting images all begin to push images, from social to personal to intimate space.

There is no TV or laptop or mobile screen or social media video. There are only moving images. And just like our ancient ancestors, we all like to watch.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Image: fstoaldo

4 thoughts on “It’s time to rethink the definition of TV

  1. I think you’re right on track and I’ve been saying for a while now that the traditional cable TV model will be the next old school content delivery platform to be outflanked by new technology. An Internet connected Apple TV makes perfect sense as a product line extension. It’s not that big of a leap from a 27-inch iMac, plus the current Apple TV tech could be housed inside—no need for a box. Then you factor in retina displays… Plus, as you point out, Apple has for quite some time been a content sales and distribution powerhouse, doing it as good or better than most.

    The real opportunity for disruption of the current cable provider models comes in the form of an App Store for an Internet connected Apple TV. We have an App Store for iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Macs, so I see no reason that this technology wouldn’t be a part of an Apple TV set. This is a potential game changer for content producers as it would give them a direct to TV set distribution channel. This is significant because there are existing apps (e.g. HBO GO) which offer unlimited access to their content via browsers, tablets, and mobile devices, yet the full spectrum of this very same content is not available via most on-demand cable services. For example, currently as an HBO subscriber I can get a better choice of content through HBO GO than I can from my cable provider. The problem is that, given the choice, I would rather view this content on my TV than on a tablet, phone, or a laptop. An Apple TV App Store changes this. I’ll no longer be hamstrung by my crappy cable provider in accessing all the on demand HBO content that I’m already paying for.

    As I said before, this is the real opportunity for disruption. WebTV 1.0 was largely a failure because accessing websites and email on your TV with a remote control was a compromised Internet experience; it was easier to surf the web with a mouse and a keyboard than with a clunky TV remote. WebTV 2.0 will succeed not by offering a better web browsing experience but by offering a better content experience. As in the example above, the web and existing content apps already offer a superior choice of content, but the viewing experience is compromised (at least when compared to a TV). It’s in Apple’s DNA as a tech company, a content delivery device manufacturer, and a content seller/re-seller to usher in the convergence of these elements with a device that makes all this simple for the average person.

    Once this technology becomes common (and has some time to mature), it could weaken the position of cable companies. If I can subscribe directly to a content producer’s channel/app, then what do I need the cable company for other than bandwidth? Certainly there are dozens of reason why it’s not quite that simple, but once the technology exists Pandora’s Box will be open and it will be too late. As we’ve seen with the music industry, when technology outflanks business models by providing an easier, more efficient way to give consumers what they want, consumers will choose the path of most convenience. And if the cable companies try to stonewall this type of content delivery system rather than helping to pave the way, consumers will simply blaze the trail themselves regardless of whether doing so is “legal” or not.

  2. Hal, very smart comment. You are right, cable companies are in a box (no pun intended). They need to defend billions in subscription fees and billions more in advertising, yet as consumers learn to pull only what they want, the walls around that inventory will collapse.

    Cable companies are caught pushing outward on those walls, and that is blocking progress.

    I think Apple, or someone, has an opportunity to break through if it can cut the right deals with content providers. Apple did this in music; if you recall, before iTunes there were several years of pain as record labels fought the tide to digital.

    Really, I’d just like one remote on my coffee table.

  3. In one way or another we’ve always defined the medium by the technology. The tube, the cables, the device. They all had more influence over the experience than the content itself because they controlled its distribution. In the new iteration there is content and there is the user. The hardware that’s in between: antenna, towers, cables, screens, should all be less important. But the economic model that makes it work for all is yet to be figured out. I watch most of my TV on an iPad via HBO GO or Comcast On Demand. But I pay the cable company for that privilege and it’s a costly sum. Somehow the content needs to be separated from the distribution technology and delivered with more options, both physical and price. As for what is TV? The line about paper thickness sums it up perfectly. It’s everything everywhere on any device.

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