Archive for November 18th, 2010

Why web TV hasn’t taken off

I spent the day checking out the state of professional web-based scripted shows, and I found that the medium hasn’t taken off. Few people watch scripted shows online, apart the occasional viral YouTube video.

The first thing that comes to mind is that their quality in most of these shows is bad and they feel cheap, but even the better shows, like “Pink”, “condition:human”, and “Trenches”, haven’t been embraced with millions of viewers per episode. Most shows have to settle for about 50,000 views per episode, with only the most popular reaching 300,000 or so. Which is abysmal considering their worldwide availability. So what’s wrong?

First, we have to check out which kinds of videos are popular, and why. A good indication for this is “The Top 10 Webisodes Chart“, by Mashable. The first thing we notice in that list is that ALL of the series there are skits: quick comedies, a’la Saturday Night Live on TV. And given that SNL itself enjoyed a rebirth after the boom of web video (it was close to cancellation before it), we can conclude that people just want a quick laugh on the web. The vast majority are not after involved drama series that require 100% of their brain power to be devoted to them — even if each of these episodes only lasts 4-5 minutes.

When having a video page open on the browser, we usually also have Twitter, Facebook, and Email open on different tabs too. When we watch something that has a narrative, we often jump from one tab to another. Admit it. Even Hulu’s pro content doesn’t always get our full attention. I was watching The Walking Dead the other day on it, and while I liked the show, I must have paused it in the excess of 15 times during its 70 minutes. Something that is not nearly as common when watching it on TV.

There is of course a solution, and this is where things must go in order for web TV to take off: Web TV must go back to TV. The “web” part of “web TV” should only be the fact that the content is streamed via the internet to the TV, and it’s democratized as the web is. And the “TV” part of “web TV” must be that we should be watching that content on our television set — without distractions. Online streaming should of course still be available to help traveling viewers.

The problem with this idea is that the tools are not ready for it. The market is ready, but the tools available are lagging behind. We are currently living in the dawn of re-inventing the TV, with devices like the Boxee Box, Roku, GoogleTV, AppleTV and 4-5 others too. No dominant device yet. And as this is only the beginning, standards don’t exist. Each manufacturer treats different sources of content differently, and thus creating fragmentation in the user experience.

People don’t really want a super smart TV (a’la PC usage experience). They don’t need PC features, like full web browsing, on their TV. If the ability is there, it’s a plus, but that’s not what they’re after. Instead, they want the OLD experience of dumb TV, but with modern flexibility. For example, users would love to pause streaming on-demand and live TV, get lots of info about a program, comment on it and share it right from their TV’s webcam, co-watch it with a remote friend and talk about the show via the TV when the show is paused, they want to rate a show, they want to check the credits list and get info about actors etc etc. Live stats of popular shows, a’la top-10s of the day or the week, etc etc.

Lots of money can be made for both broadcasters and filmmakers with IP-targeted TV ads too. And for YT/Vimeo video, a licensing shop can be setup, so each time Vimeo makes some money, it can share it with the videographer, and the musician who’s song was used in the video, can automatically take a cut too! Right now, labels are crying over people using their songs on their videos without licensing, and that’s because people don’t wanna pay for that. With an auto-licensing system that gets paid by TV ads based on the number of times it was streamed, the label gets its money, and the user has to pay nothing from his own pocket.

The most important point of all is the COMMON USER INTERFACE. Live TV, recent TV shows, movies, web TV series, Youtube/Vimeo videos, etc etc etc, ALL accessible via a common interface. What we have today is a mess instead: Youtube has its own Leanback mode, Vimeo has its own CouchMode, Podcasts etc. Both are different UIs, requiring from us to re-wire our brains each time we hop from one to another.

AppleTV: Youtube proprietary app (with music videos filtered out), podcast app, renting app, all different UIs. No way for third party video sources to create a “channel”.
GoogleTV: “Channels” are Chrome-based, all different, and when you press “menu” you get a web browser’s menu instead for what you’re watching. All this creates a bruhaha of usability. Switching my brain between Youtube’s and Vimeo’s TV modes, gave me a headache the other day.
Roku: “Channels” can be created via Roku’s API, but they’re all implemented differently because developers have the freedom to screw it up.

On top of all this, all three main solutions today lack content. Netflix and renting or buying, or streaming from free sources, don’t include all the possible content people want. For piracy to end, 99% of all content ever created must be available. So, in conclusion, there are three things that need to happen for web TV and TV in general to get revolutionized:

1. Common UI and API for every source of video. UI coherence.
2. Content is king. More content, with worldwide reach (stop the per-country madness, break down the virtual borders of culture). Either for free, or for a nominal fee, no more than $25 per month (which is much cheaper than cable).
3. Modern features to accompany each “channel”, or video, as described above.