Television: Tomorrow's Web

Last Updated Feb 29, 2008 9:27 AM EST

Does TV have to be disrupted by the Web? Yes. That is to say, maybe. No, wait -- TV will disrupt the Web. So goes The Revolution Will Be Televised, an essay by Michael Hirschorn in the March issue of the the Atlantic. It's a must-read piece for those who think it's a matter of time before the television industry gets whacked by the Web, just like newspapers and music before it.

Hirschorn starts out writing an obituary for television, noting YouTube's similarity to Napster, the tepid toe-dabbing TV executives are doing with putting their content online, his friends who have replaced the television in their living room with a computer. He makes it look obvious that video could move away from the television, how television could go the way of the music and newspaper businesses, how the writers' strike echoes those of steelworkers in the 80s, as management and labor fought over the last profits of an industry headed for very hard times.

He's being coy. The death of television isn't obvious. It might not even be as hard as he states when he writes "The traditional TV-viewing experience doesn't have to die--but to save it, the media-industrial complex will have to act in non-traditional and uncomfortable ways -- and will also have to rethink what "tv" is."

In fact, Hirschorn ends up making it sound like the television media industry might not have so much trouble with this. He cites Mark Cuban's comment that the Web is "dead and boring" and says "only so much data can be thrust through the Internet's distributed nodes, and this structural limitation makes it unlikely that a satisfying , seamless Web-video experience will be on offer anytime soon." Hirschorn also notes that dumping valuable content onto the Web "swiftly turns you from a business to a charity, undermining the value of your product even as it brings your content to a larger audience."

Hirschorn then gets to his real point: TV should be more like the Internet.

I think he should be stronger. TV could be the Internet. After two decades of talking about convergence, the industry needs to realize that there is a convergence device in our living rooms already and it's called a television, with its attendant accessories (DVR, set-top box etc.). True, we need another generation or two of technology development to bring these accessories into a single device, and to get better ways to access and navigate video content, and ship it around the house. There's no real reason why Second Life and MMORGS shouldn't be available on TV, either. I suspect television executives know this, and are actively trying to work through the technical hurdles they face (and the still thornier legal ones). The looming victory of the TV might also be the real reason why Microsoft has gone after Yahoo, a company that might help it bridge the Web and TV worlds better than it can by itself.

True, big industries often cannot see past their way of doing business. For example, I used to puckishly ask telecom executives why my landline phone was so much less versatile than my cell phone, which was smaller in size and bandwidth. Now, it doesn't matter. Perhaps the best the television industry can do is WebTV 2.0. But I bet otherwise.

What do you think?

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.