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.


derek wrote on November 19th, 2010 at 3:51 PM PST:

This is a good description of what is going on these days and I enjoyed reading it.
I just plug my mac mini into my 40″ with wireless keyboard/mouse and I have zero complaints. I can not imagine living any other way and have not had cable for 1 year now. The quality of shows/movies I watch is so much higher and its fun to have a big computer screen in the living room to hang out with friends and ignite conversations.

Chris wrote on November 22nd, 2010 at 4:04 PM PST:

I completely agree. Ive been sitting idly by waiting for the agreements with google and major content holders to either go through or fall through. I have a feeling that if anyone can do it, it will be google. If the big wigs dont side with the almighty G then they will be forced to either 1) Deconstruct their whole google tv infrastructure including their broadband rollout or 2) Create their own content. The latter Id be excited about since I think the integration across devices would be extraordinary. Also google would appreciate young developers with bright ideas and tons of poise, which some of the people Ive worked with definitely have and I hope I would. All this is still in its infancy though and bound for great things. I have a roku and cable is an all but distant and expensive memory. It’ll be about a generation before this becomes the idea we all know it can be and as content creators I guess its our job to push the envelope. One thing that I think still stands is “follow the porn” wherever porn goes it seems to be dominant as far as format. This has been true I think in almost every major change in content consumption.

Devon wrote on November 25th, 2010 at 11:28 AM PST:

In Canada it got dumb and dumber this month when the CRTC pulled the rug out from under the independent ISP business and opened the door to per-byte pricing.

Nobody is going to take to web-anything if the result is that they have to carefully meter every show against the threat of being bankrupted by overage charges every month.

Of course, the big providers are going to continue to push out their own solutions, but that’s proprietary, Jack!

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on November 26th, 2010 at 12:00 AM PST:

Personally, I’m for per-byte charge. As long as there’s competition, this is the fairest idea. Net-neutral bit providers is what all ISPs and cell carriers should be, and nothing more than that. Let’s pay for what we use.

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