Netflix, AppleTV and the End of Television

I have written before about the downfall of broadcast television – including cable television and other “one to many” legacy distribution systems for video content. I have written that the DVD would be the last big physical media format for movies and that BlueRay and HD-DVD would never have the chance to be as popular because the end of physical media had arrived. They will go down as the last effort of the industry to hold on to a changing marketplace.

I have written these things and have been disputed again and again that television is so dominant and that the idea of getting videos on physical media is so core to our culture that it would be many years if not many decades before these things will change. But I believe that the end is already here. Driven, in part, by the industry division caused by the competing media formats which are too complex for the average consumer to differentiate between, partially because of the poor standards of HDTV and its inability to handle the de facto high definition standard of 1080p, partially because of intentionally misleading marketing and specifications on high definition display products but mostly because the time and technology are right.

There are several technology players who have stepped up to the plate recently to tackle the world of physical and traditional media. I have opined in the past that non-commercial services like YouTube, Google Video, Vimeo and RSS feed based downloadable content from shows like Rocketboom, Wandering West Michigan and others through software like FireANT or Democracy would be the disruptive factors deciding the fate of media. I still believe that they will remain major plays and, over time, will come to dominate the marketplace as people turn away from commercial production finding more niche content delivered in a more personal way to be more valuable. But before that can happen there is an intermediate phase, I believe, in which commercial content will be delivered through next-generation methods and this will remove the underpinnings of traditional media.

Enter Netflix and AppleTV. There are others, of course. And some that came earlier. Amazon Unbox covers much of the same ground. But Netflix and AppleTV look to be the most disruptive and visible of the players in this new content delivery space.

The first serious, large scale implementation of a network delivery system for digital video content came from Apple’s iTunes. iTunes and AppleTV together form a cache and store content delivery network with complex Digital Rights Management (DRM) allowing for a simply and traditionally styled interface to television like content delivered over the Internet. Because of its cache and store architecture iTunes is able to function with very high definition video even over slower and less reliable network connections. The iTunes licensing team has secured a large volume of current television shows and movies that can be purchased through iTunes and watched on a computer, on a media center or on the AppleTV. The system is straightforward for most consumers and works very well. And the quality of the content generally meets or exceeds the alternatives of broadcast HDTV or DVD. Additionally the iTunes system blends alternative content from RSS/Atom feeds seamlessly into the picture allowing The Jet Set Show or Channel Frederator programs to appear as any other “television” content. Even YouTube can be viewed through the system. For consumers used to the high costs of cable and the unavailability of broadcast signals iTunes and AppleTV is a high quality, low cost competitor to traditional television with the advantage of having no commercials and all content being available on demand.

Netflix has recently entered the arena with their own disruptive service. Netflix’s primary business is as a movie rental alternative whereby movie renters can sign up for a monthly rental service and have DVDs or, more recently, HD-DVD and BlueRay Discs, delivered to them by post. The cost is extremely low and the ease of use and vast selection makes it very easy to choose over traditional rental services. Over the past few years Netflix has become very popular especially with the serious cinema market.  The new service from Netflix is the ability to view movies over the Internet via a streaming video service.  This service is included with all of the normal movie rental pricing plans making it “free” for their current user base to test and try.  This service, for people with moderate quality Internet connections, provides instant access to a massive, and constantly growing, library of “on demand” movies, documentaries and television programs.  For only a tiny fraction of the normal cost of cable service one can subscribe to Netflix’s unlimited download service and get unlimited, commercial free on-demand content.  The system is new but massively disruptive.

What is truly amazing about these two systems and their competitive counterparts like Amazon Unboxed is that they are not competing with the content of current media but only competing with the content delivery system.  By switching from traditional television and movie rentals to these services one will, under the vast majority of circumstances, save money,  increase easy of use after initial learning curve, remove commercials, remove reliance on “schedules” or “hours of business”, reduce necessary planning, increase selection, increase quality and remove expensive and incompatible devices which are currently popular to “mimick” these types of services such as DVRs.

What we are seeing now is an adaptation allowing people to continue to use the content that they are used to while receiving it through modern methods.  These new distribution systems will, in all likelihood,  prove to be ideal conduits for new types of content that can be delivered just as easily as traditional content.  The end of traditional television is here.  No longer is television just a legacy technology delivering a unique form of commercial entertainment and content that was not yet available through modern means – now it is simply legacy.

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