TV delivered by the internet is ready *now*

How do I know this? Because the internet is the primary medium by which I consume virtually all my media now. Which is why I’m getting tired of these articles stating that the internet “can’t handle it”, which seem to be appearing almost weekly now.

Take this latest one from AP:

The answer from the major Internet service providers, the telephone and cable companies, is “no.” Small clips are fine, but TV-quality and especially high-definition programming could make the Internet choke.

Most home Internet use is in brief bursts — an e-mail here, a Web page there. If people start watching streaming video like they watch TV — for hours at a time — that puts a strain on the Internet that it wasn’t designed for, ISPs say, and beefing up the Internet’s capacity to prevent that will be expensive.

And also appearing today in the NYT:

But here is the swirling myth — or is it The Big Lie? — about convergence: It’s not as close as all of that activity suggests. For various reasons, watching TV programs delivered by the Internet on regular TV looks like it will remain tantalizingly out of reach for all but the most enthusiastic gadget junkies for some time.

The problem with these articles and articles like them is they’re predicated on a very big false assumption. Unlike the author of the NYT peice, I won’t go so far as to call it a “big lie”… it’s more like a willful delusion on the part of media companies.

That delusion, of course, is that consumers give a hoot about high definition content.

Part of that delusion is true, at least; consumers do want the content. But frankly these people still haven’t learned the lessons of their own industry, no matter how many times its demonstrated. In fact, it’s so consistent it may as well be a law. Consumers want convenience, and will always choose the path of least resistance when it comes to consuming that content, irrespective of the quality offered. I can see how they might mistakenly reach the opposite conclusion; after all, CD’s trumped cassette tapes, DVD trumped VHS, sales of HDTV’s are soaring.

But, they’re conveniently overlooking when the opposite occurred. Even before home theaters were prominent, VHS rentals was a much bigger market than movie theaters. Mp3’s are of inferior quality to audio CD’s. Casettes were arguably of inferior quality to various vinyl formats. What is true about each of those format changes is that they were far more convenient than what preceded them. You don’t have to rewind a DVD, and the form factor is better. You couldn’t play vinyl in your car. Etc.

For all those HDTV’s that have been sold, I wonder how many have been used to view HD content? My bet is not many. Because simply, HD content is a pain in the ass to get. You need a tuner, first of all, as typically they’re not built into the TV. Then you need a source; you can get either over the air broadcasts, in which case it’s back to the rabbit ear antenna’s most people dropped ages ago, or digital cable, which is expensive and limited. I suspect that people are buying HDTV’s because they look good, they’re small (flat), and those are what’s on the store shelf these days. There’s no unfilled, burning desire on the part of consumers for HD content.

The media companies seem to have this idea that everyone has this immersive environment, a dedicated soundproofed room with a high end TV and stereo system with a luxury recliner, where consumers watch their content. The reality, however, is that such videophiles are a rarity. Most music is listened to in the car. Most movies are watched in dorm rooms, or in a living room on less-than-state-of-the-art equipment, possibly with screaming young kids about. Television is watched when something else is going on, quite a bit of it is watched on a small TV in the kitchen. In most of these environments, quality just isn’t going to be noticed.

Now, in these environments, the there is a burning desire for on demand content, playable on a wide array of  devices, which is both linkable and shareable. This is why the internet is such a powerful force, because it provides that brilliantly. And there’s no question of whether it can do it or not, because it’s doing it now. Broadband consumers are gobbling up the low quality videos on Google Video and YouTube, getting their TV shows in unencumbered DRM-free formats via Bittorrent, typically usually using an Xvid codec with a target size to fit one or two episodes on CDR, which produces a good-but-not-perfect quality video.

I just recently bought a Mac Mini to act as a media player for my television set. It can play DVD’s, I can watch video in a web browser, it can play any video file in any video codec I can throw at it, so I can watch my extensive archives of TV shows I have on my hard drive (which, of course, I recorded myself *wink* *wink*). Most of this stuff is actually lower quality than broadcast TV, let alone HD… but it’s convenient as hell. I can watch what I want, when I want, with minimal hassle, regardless of the source.

These people also seem to have this idea in their head that people are interested in an appointment based, live stream which couldn’t be any more wrong (with the exception of live events, where that would make sense). Far more logical is a podcast + bittorrent model, where content is subscribed to and downloaded as new episodes become available. Bittorrent sites already offer RSS feeds in this fashion, and the internet is more than capable of handling this load.

All these people saying the internet can’t be used to deliver an identical experience to television as it exists today are completely missing the point. Their refusal to make the content available in a convenient way is the biggest barrier to using the internet as my TV, not any technical issues.

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