TV When You Want It, How You Want It

Most people would agree that the Apple iPod is the Walkman of the 2000s—an ultra-popular portable device that has transcended the politics of consumer electronics to become a cultural icon. But when you compare the iPod to other technologies that we now take for granted—such as TV—it's pretty obvious that Apple's perky little device still hasn't captured the hearts and minds of America as strongly as other forms of entertainment have. TV and DVD players reach far more homes and families than do portable audio devices. Fortunately for couch potatoes—that is, most of us—there are technological changes looming on the horizon that will soon transform TV in the same way that the iPod has transformed music. Here's what you need to know.

First Music, then TV
Since the 1950s, the music industry has been dominated by a group of ever-growing companies that have instituted and maintained a business based on popular musical groups that release singles and albums. Although the media has changed over the years from albums to 8-track tapes to cassettes to CDs, the album-based format for music delivery has never really changed until recently. And the album format, frankly, doesn't make a lot of sense unless you understand the economics of an industry that was always based around delivering physical media. It was just more profitable for the companies to push the album format, which could include more songs per disk.

The problem was that quality suffered as the industry matured. Record companies wanted to push only the biggest acts, and groups were increasingly forced to shovel albums full of filler material to listeners in order to support the one or two decent songs they recorded. By the late 1990s, many music listeners had had enough. And today, online music stores such as Apple iTunes, and even illegitimate file-sharing services such as Gnutella, are changing the way consumers enjoy music. Now, artists can release individual songs or small groups of songs as they see fit, and listeners can be increasingly sure that the music they're getting is the best the artist is capable of. The album format is largely starting to fall by the wayside as a result. It's about time.

The important aspect of this change is that technology, again, has enabled artists to reach listeners in brand-new ways. But because this change affects the very way in which music is distributed, it's far more radical than previous changes, such as the 60 (and then 70) minutes of music an audio CD suddenly provided when that form factor first appeared in the mid-1980s. And that same kind of radical change is about to sweep through the TV industry.

The Viewer Is King
Like the music industry, the TV industry hasn't changed much over the years. In the United States, the major networks have settled into an evolving battle with cable TV content, but the basics haven't changed: TV shows air at a certain time, and most people line up in front of the boob tube like cattle to catch the latest episode of a favorite sitcom. Like the music industry, change is coming—and coming fast. Early adopters have replaced tape-based VCRs with recordable DVD players and digital video recorders (DVRs, sometimes called personal video recorders, or PVRs). Even Microsoft has gotten into the game, offering a version of Windows called Windows XP Media Center Edition that offers TV-recording features in special Media Center PCs that attach to your TV.

If you haven't tried a DVR, be prepared for a life-altering experience. As with a VCR, you don't have to be in front of the TV when a show starts to watch it. Instead, you can time-shift and watch your favorite shows whenever you want. The benefit of a DVR over a VCR, of course, is that a DVR is digital and doesn't require you to swap out tapes. Instead, shows are recorded to a hard disk, like that used in your PC.

DVRs let you skip commercials, a fact that has the TV industry nervous: Most of the industry's cash comes from advertisers. This problem has some interesting side effects, by the way. Because my children have grown up in a home with a Media Center PC, they simply skip over commercials and rarely experience the onslaught of ads for sugar-laden cereals, violent and erotic TV shows, and other things they're frankly better off without. On the other hand, my children have a certain impatience with live TV, not understanding why we can't simply "make it go fast" and skip back to the show when the commercials come on.

Regardless, in our household, TV is a completely different experience than it is in most homes across America. We record the shows we want—educational PBS series and cartoons for the kids, documentaries and sports events for me, and various HBO series for my wife—and watch them when we want. We're not pigeonholed into the TV networks' schedules, and I certainly don't have to worry about being around on Thursday night for "Must See TV."

However, in sharp contrast to the music industry, the TV industry is responding well to the new technology. Cable companies are rolling out DVR-equipped cable set-top boxes, which let you record shows for a small monthly fee. They're also implementing On Demand schemes with the help of popular networks and cable networks, so that viewers can watch the latest episode of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under any time they want. These services often come with a charge, of course, which offsets the money lost from ad revenues. I think most people would be willing to pay a bit extra for this kind of service, however.

Improving the TV Experience
The TV industry is also improving the TV experience, albeit at a slower pace than I'd like to see. Many cable providers are now offering optional HDTV services, which provide exceptionally better reception and picture quality—especially on newer flat-panel displays—than traditional digital TV. In my area, cable upstart RCN offers 12 HDTV channels, including HDTV versions of the local network stations (which is great for sporting events), as well as HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Discovery HD Theatre, ESPN HD, HDNet, HDNet Movies, and others.

Consumers are also taking advantage of the latest advancements in home theater technology, but doing so for far less than the princely sums it would have cost just a few years ago. Many families now enjoy surround sound in their den, using extremely inexpensive setups that let you enjoy a theatre-like experience in the comfort of their own home, whether while watching CSI: Omaha or the latest James Bond movie on HBO.

Taking TV on the Road
TV is also taking the first tentative steps into the final frontier of recorded television: portability. The ability to record shows and watch them whenever you want is wonderful, but you still need to be home to enjoy shows recorded to a DVR. Two technologies are breaking the home barriers on recorded TV shows today, and in the future we'll see even more dramatic changes.

The first technology is home DVD recorders, which let you record TV shows to portable DVD disks instead of a hard disk. Although you'll often need to swap out disks with such a system, just as you had to swap out VCR tapes in the 1980s, recordable DVD lets you take your shows on the road, using a notebook computer or portable DVD player. And that latter device is falling in price dramatically: I recently saw the cheapest portable DVD players selling for close to $100 at Best Buy.

For taking digitally recorded content on the road, a new generation of portable devices is necessary. Not surprisingly, Microsoft and its hardware partners are at the forefront of this market, and the first Portable Media Center devices are on sale now for $500 at a retailer near you. These devices fulfill a lot of needs—see my review of the Portable Media Center at the SuperSite for Windows—but their integration with recorded TV content from Media Center PCs (and, soon, with shows recorded from SnapStream Beyond TV) is the deal maker. During recent cross-country trips, I was able to catch up on my favorite TV shows using this little portable wonder, and I have little doubt that it or an upcoming revision will eventually displace the iPod as the gotta-have-it digital device. Portable media doesn't just have to be about music: It can include movies, TV shows, and photos as well.

Cable companies and other content providers, naturally, are looking into their own remote-access technologies. Earlier this year, I was briefed about an up-and-coming technology that will let HBO subscribers access HBO content from anywhere in America, without having to pay for it again at other locations. The idea is that you subscribe to content once, then access it from anywhere—be it a hotel room, a friend's home, or your notebook computer while waiting for a delayed flight. That technology is still years away—and it isn't tied to HBO, specifically—but it's an exciting look ahead at how subscription content will evolve over time to address TV.

Couch Potato Nirvana
In any event, we're still at the forefront of this sea change in TV usage, and the biggest changes have yet to come. But it's an exciting time to be alive, assuming the notion of enjoying content when you want it and how you want it is attractive to you. To me, perhaps the ultimate couch potato, it's a future that can't happen fast enough.

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