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My Television is a Computer

November 15th, 2009 by Christian

I really appreciated Nicholas Carr’s article “The Price of Free” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, mostly because it makes many of the same points as my last blog post.  I see from Web searching that the original title was possibly “The Price of Free (Television).”  As Carr and I both wrote, the Comcast merger is about the threatening decline of the cable TV business.  It is Comcast’s attempt to get into the content business and the Internet business before they are left out of business.  Luckily the conference paper that my post was based on was first published in 2000 so we can win any disputes about priority… because Carr is a much better writer than I am.

carr-article-graphicHe makes a nice comparison to the failed AOL/TimeWarner merger‘s attempt to join Internet pipes and content producers, and he describes some of the antitrust problems with a Comcast/NBC-Uni deal in more detail.  He even includes a primer on network neutrality.  Excellent.

However, I don’t understand two of the turns he takes in the article.  FIRST: He comments on the fact that “the smartest, most creative TV shows” are also the most expensive to produce, and he suggests that an Internet video platform will fail to fund these shows because they will “stanch the flow of money back to studios” so that “producing those kinds of programs may no longer be possible.”   But there’s nothing in the current moment to suggest that people don’t like watching television (or at least, video) or that they aren’t willing to pay for it with their attention or their cash.  What’s on the table is how much we should pay Comcast to get to NBC, not that we aren’t interested in NBC, or aren’t interested in paying.  An advertisement-based Internet television would simply be a return to the funding model for over-the-air television. I’m not a big fan of the advertising-only funding model for a number of reasons that will be saved for another post, but for now suffice to say that it doesn’t sound like the end of quality television if we don’t pay comcast and instead we watch ads on Hulu.

(I’m also not sure that the best shows are the most expensive, but let’s just cede the point that people do like expensive shows.)*

So I’m not sure why the “free” parts are in there, or why “free” is in the title.  I blame Chris Anderson.

SECOND: I also really liked his brief discussion of TV as a communal activity (see the nifty graphic, right, from the article).  But… oops: I’m not sure I see how using the Internet as the transport for my TV shows changes their communal nature in any way, especially if I use an Internet-enabled device in my living room to watch TV via the Internet (Carr uses his Blu-Ray player).  And sharing a televised experience while alone has defined the form since the cultural critics started writing about it.  So it’s a nifty graphic but both frames of it should look like the bottom one.

It is an empirical question as to whether new Internet video distribution is driving a new trend of watching television alone.  I’d bet against it probably because I think we’re already watching television alone.

Unlike the graphic, the difference between the coming Internet TV platform and current TV will be largely invisible.  People soon can easily switch conduits to their existing sets, while TV and computer interfaces increasingly resemble each other.  My last post was subtitled “My Game System is My New Cable Box” but another point to remember is that my television is a computer.

* …because the big studios use high production values to train us to differentiate their work from that of other, smaller producers.

UPDATE (5:20 p.m.):

The watching alone/together thing in the article irritated me enough that I looked it up.  My hunch was right.  The Internet can’t be making us solitary television watchers because we are already solitary television watchers. The most recent study I can find says that TV is most likely to be watched alone.  While we do tend to watch television together in larger households with families and at certain times of day (prime time), this is dwarfed by the overall amount of time we watch television, an activity we mostly do alone.  (This is from the Ball State / CRE Video Consumer Mapping Study [funded by Neilsen], July 7, 2009.  See esp. Section 6 from the Technical Appendix [“Solitary vs. Social TV Viewing”].)

One Response to “My Television is a Computer”

  1. Lawanda Cacy Says:

    Thanks again for the article.Much thanks again. Keep writing.

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