Where TV’s going…or not

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from the iPodHere’s the cornerstone question raised at a Monday panel session on home-media technology: Is Wall Street Journal digital-technology guru Kara Swisher the embodiment of the future, or what a statistician would call an aberration?

The answer is important not because Swisher writes about technology, but because she might represent a new era in how people watch TV. Moderating a Cable Show panel session titled “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from the iPod: Harmonizing the Consumer Experience,” Swisher said she watched the latest season of ABC’s Life of Brian via her broadband-fed personal computer. “It looked beautiful,” she said.

Whether TV at large crosses the chasm from living-room TV set to PC is one of the big questions confronting cable industry strategists. But sentiment at the “iPod” panel was largely tilted toward the living room. One of the impediments to TV’s broadband-Internet migration is that full-blown high-definition TV still performs poorly over even the fastest Internet connections, explained Time Warner Cable executive vice president for product management Peter Stern. That’s one reason he sees most viewers sticking with the traditional TV environment.

Not that Stern or anybody else was dismissing the impact of new digital technologies on established behaviors. Still, the panelists at large said glitzy new devices like video-enabled iPods and media-center PCs tend to produce more impact in news reports than they do in the real world. Few owners of video-ready iPods actually use them to watch video, noted Ryan O’Hara, president of TV Guide Channel. And the much-awaited media center PC – a sort of do-it-all vessel for movies, music, digital photos and more – hasn’t achieved much traction. (Swisher called Microsoft’s Media Center PC software platform “a disaster.”)

For any device to achieve the breakthrough status accorded the iPod platform in general, panelists said two features are essential: simplicity and control. Simple point-and-click schemes for navigating television and interacting with new services seem to resonate across a wide spectrum of age groups, O’Hara noted. Agreeing was Dan Simpkins, president of Hillcrest Labs, which is developing new technologies to help viewers find their way through a growing tonnage of TV content. “The age of the up/down, left/right remote is over,” he said. And Comcast senior vice president of marketing and sales, Marvin Davis, suggested developers err on the side of simplicity. “I think it’s worse to offer a lot of content that people can’t get to,” he said.

Time Warner Cable’s Stern advised that focusing on end experiences ultimately will win the day. In a hyper-competitive multichannel TV environment, fighting at the margins over rights to exclusive programming won’t produce much value. Instead, he said the key to market success “is not about exclusivity; it’s about delivering end-to-end experiences.”

– Stewart Schley

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