Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Future Of Television Is Self-Service, P2P Distributed Media Consumption

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Today, 90% of people in the U.S. receive television signals into their homes via cable or satellite transmission*. These media distribution services and, to a large extent, the content they distribute, are owned by a small and shrinking number of very large companies.
*source: Clark, Nicola. "Cable TV in Europe ripe for consolidation," International Herald Tribune. 5 April

Photo credit: Peter Gustafson

Therefore, these companies are in a position to control much of the media that the population consumes. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is currently considering revisions to various sets of rules that could further ease restrictions on ownership.

However, as broadband access to the Internet becomes commonplace in the home and the cost of computing devices drops, there is potential for a new type of network to emerge that provides people with access to entertainment, information, and personal connections that could replace and improve upon some of the functions of television, while increasing connections to external communities.

By utilizing design innovations that provide advantages over the entrenched providers and by keeping the desires of consumers in mind, this technology could become a compelling complement or alternative to the portfolios of services provided by traditional media distributors.

Photo credit: James Isbel

I have spent time working in the production and distribution of television, radio, and interactive content. I have noticed in others, and experienced myself, the difficulty of finding quality content and information when I know that there is so much available on the Internet.

Much creativity today is devoted to computer-distributed content, but much of this content would be more efficiently consumed in a passive manner, and if there were better techniques for helping consumers to find what they might be interested in.

In tandem with this, if channels for the distribution of independently created media were more readily available and widely utilized, the quantity and the selection of quality media would likely increase.

Furthermore, I am frustrated by much of what I see on television today.

Though the number of television channels has multiplied in the last decade, ownership of these channels has consolidated and this, along with other factors, is leading to a decrease in the variety of views and artistic ideals expressed.

Concurrently, content and advertising are quickly becoming a single entity. In order to keep the quality of content high, these elements need to be separated once again.

Public media is in decline as well.

Funding for public media, much of which used to come directly or indirectly from government sources, now is coming more and more from donators with vested interests.

Frank Webster has the following to say about public broadcasting, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in particular,

"Since the late 1970s, we have been experiencing in Britain (and elsewhere where versions of the public service ethos are found) what has been called a 'crisis of public service broadcasting'. It is a crisis which many perceive to be being resolved in a diminution of broadcasting's public sphere functions.

There have been two major fronts on which this crisis has been fought, the political and the economic.

On one side there have been attacks on broadcasters from those who regard them as part of a 'new class' of privileged, smug and state-supported elites who are both 'leftists' and disposed towards 'nannying' the wider public (i.e. berating audiences in superior tones with anti-market ideologies), and yet 'accountable' neither to government, nor to private capital, nor even to the audiences whose license fees keep the BBC going.

On another side has emerged an economic critique which contends that the BBC is profligate with public funds, takes money without offering any recourse to those taxpayers who provide it, and which urges a new sovereignty to the 'consumer' who ought to be 'free to choose' what programming is to be provided."*

*source: Webster, Frank. Theories of the Information Society, Second Edition. London and New York:
Routledge, 2002. p. 173.

Over the past few years, I have completed a good deal of somewhat related work that has given me background and impetus into the compilation of this work.

As my undergraduate thesis at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, I wrote about how peer-to-peer distribution could change the music industry and the way in which we consume music.

This was at a time, in 1999, when the technologies were relatively nascent and untested and were not yet popularized.

Since then, their potential to change the ways our society exchanges media and information has become clearer.

Much of what we read in the popular press examines the current state of the media industries and characterizes new technological forces on them as threats and attacks to their business models that have and will continue to come about.

However, for me, the most interesting things about these technologies are what they will enable, not what they will disable.

At the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, I have collaborated with others on three projects that served in part as explorations of how social software can transform people's relationships to media.

Video SmackDown, a television show that pitted two music videos against each other in head-to-head competition, the results of which are decided upon by the viewers, tested how a closed community of viewers watching a television program work with and against one another, changing the media that is provided to them.

The CoDECK, or Community Deck, was built and still serves as a platform for a community to share video-based content that is consumed in a public space and encourages conversation surrounding the work.

Socialight enables communities to stay in touch while mobile, giving users tools to communicate in new ways both in real time, with people in their social network who are physically close to them, and time-shifted, by allowing people to annotate space with multimedia so that only people connected to them socially, can see the annotation.

Until recently, the creation of a system similar to that being proposed here was not possible. Nor was there as much demand for such a system as there is today.

But demand for such a system has increased during the recent past.

Consumer wants and needs have changed over past years to bring this about. Furthermore, technological advances have served to allow new systems to be implemented, and as a secondary effect, have shown people possibilities for the future, increasing demand even more.

The following circumstantial factors contribute to the demand for this platform:

  • Changes in the legal, political, and economic environments
  • Consumer frustration with finding television content that suits their needs and desires
  • Increasing concentration of ownership of media creation and distribution by a few corporate players
  • Globalization
  • Community disconnectedness
  • Changes in consumption habits due to the introduction of new networks and technologies such as the internet and digital video recorders
  • People's increasingly mediated lives
  • Technical ease of creating quality media
  • New models for distribution and consumption of media

Changes in the legal, political, and economic environments have led toward changes in what media is distributed to consumers and how that media is distributed.

Cable and satellite television offers users increasing numbers of channels of media - predominately video, some audio-only, and some video-on-demand, along with ancillary services.

A few large companies control much of media production. Companies such as General Electric, Time Warner, The Walt Disney Co., Viacom, and News Corporation control media production and distribution around the world.* The Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. is currently undergoing a reexamination of its Media Ownership Policy, which was revised in 2003.**

*source: Who Owns What: Columbia Journalism Review's online guide to what the major media companies own.
**source: FCC Strategic Goals: Media - Media Ownership.

Depending on the results of the reexamination, this could allow media ownership to be further consolidated by the major players.

How is it that with these distribution systems, having hundreds of channels, people still complain of not being able to find the media that suits them? There are a few reasons for this.

People have diverse viewpoints.
Even with hundreds of channels available, finding suitable media from the set of media available still is not possible for all of the people all of the time. Nationwide, and often worldwide, producers and distributors cannot take into account relatively small communities of consumers with unique interests.

Also, the concentration of media ownership leads toward homogeneity in media and the viewpoints expressed in that media. This is due both to the fact that concentration of media production by fewer people leads to fewer viewpoints in and of itself.

Furthermore, there are economic incentives to redistributing similar or derivative media to that which was already created. Most media distributors, even public media, such as the BBC, NPR, and PBS, increasingly must operate as businesses that must be careful to ensure their economic well being.*
*source: Webster, Frank. Theories of the Information Society, Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

The change that is possibly the toughest to track is interdependence brought about by globalization. It has been said enough times over the past few decades so as to become a cliché, but it is true and bears repetition: due to advances in communication and transportation, we are now a global society with a global economy and a global culture that may not be our primary culture, but affects our lives deeply.

People and organizations need to know more about what is going on globally. Since information flows quickly everywhere, many markets, and all of the biggest markets, are now global.

People routinely travel globally both for business and pleasure. Friends and families maintain strong ties with each other even when strewn around our planet. Our industries have the power to impact our planet's environment in such ways that a company or government's policies in one part of the world can affect the quality of our air and water in another part of the world.

International bodies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization organize politics and economics on a global scale. At the same time, currently predominant media distribution models are more efficient at distributing a succinct collection of media to a broad collection of people than to catering to individual needs.

As people are better able to connect with others around the world, they are often less likely to connect with others near them, and with others who have similar cultures and values. In addition to the homogenization of media, our consumer-oriented culture is further contributing to this tendency.

Humans are social creatures, our lives enhanced by our relationships with other people. But when we each "need" a large house, a big fancy car, and a big television, as advertisers convince us we do, we cut ourselves off from the communities around us.

I believe that our abilities to satisfy more basic human needs are suffering and there is a demand for recreating these connections.

A new growth in the popularity of religion is one way this is demand is being satisfied. I believe re-thinking how our media is created and distributed is another way.

People around the world now view the internet as a source of both information and entertainment. Their use of the internet has displaced their consumption of media distributed in other ways, such as via television and newspapers. Data from a large study completed in 2001 reported that one-third of veteran internet users say that the internet has decreased the time they spend watching television. Twenty-one percent reported a decline in newspaper reading.* We can easily assume that these percentages have increased during years since.
*source: Getting Serious Online: As Americans Gain Experience, They Use the Web More at Work, Write Emails with More Significant Content, Perform More Online Transactions, and Pursue More Serious Activities. Pew Internet Project, 2002.

People are also getting accustomed to consuming media originally distributed via television in new ways. Digital video recorders (DVRs), originally popularized by TiVo but now sold by many companies and built into computers through new types of software and hardware, are being placed between (and integrated into) set-top boxes or cable entries into homes, and televisions or video monitors.

These new technologies allow people to watch television without the need to schedule their consumption and with the power to change the way that television is actually viewed.

These new computerized devices store television content that automated collaborative filtering preference systems suggest (not always correctly) the user might like*, as well as what the user is currently watching.
*source: Zaslow, Jeffrey. "Oh no! My TiVo thinks I'm gay". The Wall Street Journal. 4 December 2002.

This enables users to watch any television program any time after it is first broadcast, and to seek out the parts of the programming that are relevant to them, skipping uninteresting parts, such as advertisements. Thus, people are gradually getting used to consuming media the way they want it.

People who miss original airings of programs on television are already downloading that media using peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent.

Informal research suggests that people are experimenting with new programming because it is brought to their attention by, or just because it is easier to watch, on their DVR.

This suggests that power in scheduling media consumption and a comfortable user interface lead toward users altering their consumption patterns by considering media they otherwise would not have.

An increasingly larger portion of the communication that takes place as people live their lives is more mediated today than ever before. People use computers, mobile and landline telephones, televisions, radio, newspapers, etc, throughout their days.

Video-based entertainment, specifically, will, over the next few years, increase its presence in our lives due to decreases in price and increases in quality of video displays. Better displays will be fit into consumer electronics and screens at home will get thinner and larger so people will be likely to place them in more places where they live and work, where they will take up an increasing amount of wall-space.

Furthermore, I predict that these screens, likely requiring less power than traditional televisions and used for many purposes including information retrieval, entertainment, and communication, will tend to be left powered-on for ever greater amounts of time.

Content can be created when these screens are idle, that is, when they are not being used for a specific purpose. Thus, they will be used not only as primary foci of attention, as when watching television, but also as secondary foci of attention. In the future, users may glance at a video screen while performing another activity. These future user tendencies also create demand for new forms of media.

At the same time as demand is increasing, recent developments leading toward the technical feasibility for such a system have come about in all of the three stages of content lifecycle - production, distribution, and consumption.

Advances in technology, and decreasing costs of the technology, have given people the ability to change how they engage in these processes surrounding the media cycle.

Broadcast-quality video that previously required a team of artists and engineers using hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of equipment to create can now be created by a single person or a small group using one-thousand-dollar cameras and a two-thousand-dollar computer.

Thus, increasingly more smaller and independent players can create video with an appeal that may rival that created by those with much larger financial backings.

While right now this is true for the creation of prerecorded video content, rapid developments will soon make this possible for live-format video as well.*
*source: Van Every, Shawn. "What is ITJ...", Interactive Tele-Journalism.

Dan J. Melinger

In essence the song remains the same. Television as we know it is going to change dramatically in the coming months and years. What used to be the magnet creating a gathering point of people around the tube at specific times of the day, will radically change its communication and content delivery approach to assume many new ones. For those executives that come from the traditional broadcasting world I think one short motto I have used before sums up well what the future of television will be like: Prime Time Is Anytime and Anytime Is Prime Time.

Robin Good

Originally full text written by Dan J. Melinger
and entitled: Massive Media (PDF - 51 pages)
Selected passages selected and edited by Robin Good
Interactive Telecommunications Program
Tisch School of the Arts
, New York University
May 2004

Dan Melinger

Dan Melinger is one of the founders of Socialight which he presently manages.

Dan J. Melinger -
Reference: Massive Media [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2006-01-16 04:34:02

Shawn Van Every

Robin, The URL for "What is ITJ" should be:


2006-01-08 05:55:01

Bala Pillai

Hi Robin, how timely! Dan Mellinger contacted me 10 days ago and we've been talking about synergizing on convergence between community and media in Asia. He was intrigued by my notion at

posted by Robin Good on Thursday, January 5 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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