Translation Please

Linear TV's Dead and Other Cable Worries

7/12/2010 11:55 AM

If  worrying were an Olympic event, cable could easily go for the gold. Cord-cutting! Over-the-top video! Google TV! (Gasp!)

Here’s my personal favorite of the anvils poised to drop on the industry’s collective head: “Linear television is dead.”

Yikes. Linear video remains the bread-and-butter for established cable (and satellite, and telco video) distributors. The cash cow. If it dies … perish the thought.

Does “linear is dead” mean that we won’t be able to leave the TV on in the background - without first creating a playlist of things to watch?

Does it mean that cable networks and the Big Four broadcast networks will stop programming in dayparts, shifting instead to some kind of 100% on-demand model?

Seems unlikely. When worried, ask more questions. A good one to start with is this: Are you equating “cord-cutting” with the “death of linear”? If so, that lessens the anxiety somewhat. TV didn’t kill radio, and online shopping didn’t kill “brick and mortar,” to name two relevant parallels.

The way to phrase the question in tech terms is this: Are you saying that linear television will shift, technically, to more of an on-demand framework - away from broadcast, and toward multicast and unicast?

That’s a more accurate - and less fatal - way to frame it. It’s not that networks will stop programming linearly, or that people will stop watching TV linearly. More, it reflects an underlying plumbing shift in how video bits are moving. From broadcast to multicast, then unicast. From “one to many” to “one to some” to “one to one.”

These days, linear video distribution is shifting away from satellite delivery onto national fiber backbones, called CDNs (Content Delivery Networks), which connect to headends. From there, it’ll move toward point-to-point delivery, to the screens in our lives that want video.

As someone who comes from a long line of very gifted worriers, I offer this: Try to remember what you used to worry about. For me, it was two-way plant. There wasn’t enough, in the early 1990s (understatement) - the industry’s annual construction forecasts always put the amount of two-way plant at 30% or less.

Now, hardly anything works without two-way.

Linear television isn’t going to die. The plumbing of it will change. And as it’s counterproductive to wring your hands while rolling up your sleeves, I’d suggest the latter as the safest course of action.