The Revolution Still Isn't Televised


[Commentary] Apple to Comcast: You win (for now). The latest version of Apple TV, a $99 box providing pay-per-view access to a limited selection of TV shows and movies, is like any number of Internet-connected boxes you can hook up to your TV. What we really want Apple isn't offering, and nobody knows this better than Steve Jobs: What we want is to watch anything we want whenever we want, for a single monthly price. Comcast doesn't have it either, but the MSOs (lingo for multisystem operators, aka the cable giants) come closest, with their endless offerings of linear channels and growing on-demand libraries. Google could help you organize your programming apps in a guide substantially more useful and intuitive than you get from your cable operator. Even so, the Comcasts might still come out on top because they can provide you with a single bill, and (if you use their networks) they can prioritize your bits to guarantee trouble-free viewing. If so, Apple to Comcast: Play your cards right, and the future is still yours, not ours. But wait. Before declaring a winner, let's doubt for a moment the case for broadband TV, at least the idea that individualized streams for every viewer are always the way to go. Such an approach will require massive investment in delivery capacity, not to mention spectrum if viewers want their streams wirelessly. Does this make economic sense?

A lot of viewing doesn't want to become on-demand viewing. A lot, especially live news and sports, would remain programming that millions of viewers want to watch simultaneously as it's produced. We already have a technology eminently suited to deliver such programming efficiently—it's called over-the-air broadcast TV, if only the FCC's archaic ownership and content regulations would get out of the way and let the industry reshape itself for the digital age.

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