Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Apple TV and the Three Homonyms

TV is actually a homonym. It can mean content, the delivery, or the hardware. Historically, this is understandable as the corporate entities were all one in the same. The broadcasters created the content, were the delivery, and designed and sometimes made the hardware. The original color broadcast system was designed by CBS and was later replaced by one designed by RCA. RCA which was the progenitor of NBC and ABC. NBC was also, at times owned by GE, another former TV brand, and the three notes that accompany the NBC logo are the musical notes G-E-C for General Electric Corporation. CBS was previously owned by Westinghouse (inventor of the active matrix LCD), and ABC is currently owned by the content creator Disney. So the TV industry has always been heavily integrated from content creation to the consumer through delivery, to the box (or now the panel) sitting in the consumer’s home.

As I discuss in “The End of Broadcast TV”, this level of integration has had a stifling effect on TV innovation, delaying both the implementation of color then high definition by over a decade on each occasion. Now the hardware industry is embracing 3 more changes to format (3D, Cinema Wide, and 4K) and no one is seeking to ask the broadcasters’ permission for the new formats. With the decline in over-the-air (OTA) reception, the role of the “broadcasters” has contracted into content creation. Further, with the increasing diversity of content choices, the broadcasters creative input has increasingly gone from shows like “60 Minutes” to “Honey Bubu”. Having to fill a broadcast schedule has always driven less than stellar content. Game shows and reality shows are the successors to soap operas. Soap Operas got their name from the fact that most were sponsored by Proctor and Gamble, the household products giant; being the source of the money, advertisers shape TV as well as fund it. The gap between some network shows and what is available on YouTube can seem quite narrow. Further, with increasing presence of internet delivered content and video on demand, the role filled by this time filler content is under assault as well. You can watch TV shows on YouTube. Soon you will be watching more of YouTube shows on TV via shows like “Tosh.0”.

Newsweek recently announced that it is ceasing publication of a physical magazine and is migrating to an internet only existence. The decision was no-doubt, motivated by the increasing expense of printing and physical delivery of a physical product. I do not have data on the cost benefit of broadcasters actually broadcasting their content but I would imagine the combination of “must carry” guaranteeing them business with the cable and satellite companies and the value of their spectrum dwarfs the advertising revenue value of the 3% of sets connecting via OTA broadcast.

(The) Display
Display is another industry homonym. As a long-time member of the “display industry”, I think of “the display” as the physical device that creates the image the consumer sees: the Liquid Crystal Display, Plasma screen, or OLED. In the internet world display (not The Display) is pop-up or other advertising that is triggered by the consumer’s content selection. In some sense, all advertising is display as advertisers always try and place ads adjacent (either in time or physical juxtaposition) next to relevant content.

There are some significant current issues with display. TV content was initially an ad supported medium. With the advent of cable, TV offered a mix of ad supported and direct pay content. Internet content began with both ad supported and pay options. That diversity will continue and may be spreading as it is rumored that Amazon is contemplating and ad supported tablet; ad supported hardware. These are not the only two models. Disney has been quite masterful at doing both and further integrating content with advertising. Disney has a variety of businesses: content creation, broadcast (the ABC network), theme parks, and merchandising. ABC, of course, runs third party ads, but all of the Disney contribution is all some form of advertising. The Disney TV shows, independent of any explicit Disney advertising, promote the theme parks and merchandise. The merchandise promotes the movies and TV content. The theme parks promote everything Disney. I will refer to this as embedded display. The Apple stores are something of an embedded display if not a full-fledged theme park. These competing models imply differing control over the ecosystems behind them. Disney controls everything Disney. Disney also has considerable sway in the hardware world as well. It was Disney’s decision to back Blu-Ray over HD-DVD that spelled the end for HD-DVD. Apple maintains tight control as well. Direct pay content is whatever you have a mind to watch. Ad supported content is somewhere in between.

A second issue with display, by necessity, display has always been some combination of graphics and necessarily text. As the focus moves from desktop and notebook screens to smartphones, the ability to condense a meaningful message into a vastly smaller space for text is a substantial challenge for both the advertiser and content deliverers such as Facebook. The resolution of the human eye is limited and while stuffing ever-more pixels into a mobile display grants bragging rights, ever smaller text becomes unreadable. This is one reason why TV has such potential; the larger screen could accommodate existing pop-up ads and then some. Largely passed by by the social media trend and not capable of the finely tuned display ads of the internet. Mobile has grown in part because it enables things that TV doesn’t, or hasn’t.

The Third Homonym
The third homonym is LCD, a banking term for Large Complex Deals. It has been widely reported that the Apple TV set is being held up by negotiations with the content owners. This may be true but I think that most of the discussion about an Apple TV set is limited in its imagination. The Apple TV set is discussed as Apple’s way of moving into an existing, low or no profit business rather than an expansion of the market. One of the things that Apple did for the smartphone market was to make the phone more of a social platform. While Apple may be in discussion with the film-makers and cable TV companies, I expect that they are also having some discussions with Twitter and YouTube as well. They will embrace, not only the existing content, but play a role in enabling new content. These changes may be reflected in the hardware as well.

Prior to the conversion to broadcast HDTV conversion, the 16:10 format was original selected by the Standard Panels Working Group (SPWG) as the standard for notebook computers. This was done to accommodate Windows. After HDTV conversion, with the widespread promotion of “16:9” many notebooks switched to a 16:9 layout. However, per Steve Jobs preference, Apple remained with 16:10 to accommodate a control bar at the bottom of 16:9 content. During the recent presidential debate, some networks ran a Twitter feed below the image of the two candidates. I could imagine that this could become a permanent part of TV viewing with the set recognizing who of those you follow, is watching the same content at the same time and display their Twitter comments at the bottom… When your team wins the Super Bowl, nothing like stuffing it in everyone else’s face. So 16:9 could easily become 16:10. The other format changes could be incorporated as well, particularly Cinema Wide (23:9) resulting in a 23:10. As to the others, 3D and 4K, they might be “A Bridge Too Far” in what is going to be an otherwise expensive set.

When showing 16:9 content, such a set would have room on the side for two 4:3 panels (the standard definition format) showing whatever the user desired, maybe Facebook or Ebay. Indeed, as with the internet, the model for advertising could shift from time slots to screen positions as with display ads today. Further, I would expect that if an iPad is not explicitly the remote for the set, the remote will have its own 7” display showing additional printed content and/or enabling the user to rearrange the content on the main screen. Other factors in the new TV as with the smartphone, a general purpose processor (maybe even a GPU rather than a CPU) and improved inputs (camera and microphone). There will also be lots of new software features, mostly ported over from those that already exist on the iPhone, but the hardware itself is the easy part.

Delivery is more problematic. When the iPod was developed, it was still most common to buy music on CDs. The content owners had no interest in CD makers or record stores, so cutting them out of the distribution chain was a small matter. Apple, itself, was enjoined from distributing music on physical media per its agreement with Apple Records. Video content makers moved from removable media to electronic distribution a while ago. Though AT&T gained a lot by being the first, and for a time only, carrier with the iPhone the same incentives are not there for cable or satellite providers. Additionally, in the era where cell phones were given away to get the consumer to sign a long term contract, locking the device so that it only worked with the provider network did not seem intrusive. It is to be discovered if consumers will buy a TV that only works with a specific provider. Such experiments in the past have failed. The new services an Apple TV set could be provided over the internet, but that leaves the majority of the content still coming through the traditional providers and not integrated with the sets new features. Integration and making it easy for the consumer has been a trademark of all Apple products.

In the switch from broadcast to other forms of delivery, a new (or in some cases old) cast could either provide cooperation or competition. Disney was a make or break decider for the last removable media format and will play a substantial role. Cisco provides much of the hardware that runs the internet. New formats and protocols will be much easier with Cisco’s help. Apple has had Cisco’s help before. Cisco actually owned the iOS and iPhone trademarks before Apple wanted to produce the products attached to these names. However, Cisco is developing a substantial brand name of its own; it could easily introduce a competing product. Similarly, if the range of new products extends into home automation, GE remains a powerful brand name and is cooperating with Apple. Samsung and LG have large appliance businesses as well.

In addition to the agreements that must be forged with film makers, broadcasters and such, there is a new ecosystem in Interactive Digital Signage that must be dealt with as well. As I have related elsewhere, there is nothing that says that the digital signage screen area could not eventually rank with that of home TVs. The digital signage advertisers will be most of the same companies that advertise on TV and will no-doubt want a coordinated, experience for Digital Out Of Home (DOOH) and in-home. The world’s top brand, by estimated value, is Coca Cola. Coke is a player in shaping digital signage and ultimately advanced TV as well. Part of this shaping will include how digital signage interacts with mobile devices. Near Field Communications (NFC) was notably absent from the new iPhone 5. If it becomes a standard part of interactive digital signage, it will become part of TV. Digital signage is also brings a new cast of companies in content creation and content delivery. Although Cisco spans both, the other new players may be folded into the TV ecosystem as well.

In the era where the broadcasters controlled everything from content to display hardware, understanding the industry was simple. It was made even simpler by the fact that other platforms such as smartphones, tablets, and interactive digital signage did not exist, all of the major players were operating on the same business model and all broadcasts were made using the same technical standard. There was no OS issue to divide competing ecosystems.

The influence of the broadcasters is declining; the emergence of new platforms, and new players, is making TV is much much more complex. With small screen devices bumping into the limitations of small screens, TV, the new big screen beacons. Working out all of these competing interests is a Large Complex Deal. If Apple launches a TV set, I doubt if they will have everything nailed down in the first go-round. Further, Competing OS ecosystems will not be as slow to respond.

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