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Different Ways to Watch

5/09/2012 6:35 PM Eastern

Suddenly, everyone wants to be in some part of the TV business.

While we await whatever Apple TV becomes, we can look forward to the Ikea “”Uppleva” TV set, already on sale in Europe. Just as the buzz about an Intel-branded set-top box and accompanying online video service calms down, Samsung pops up with a plan to insert advertisements on its mobile devices - a probable prelude to a similar commercial role peddling apps on its “Smart TV” sets.

Beyond the obvious growth of over-the-top and online video, the television industries are morphing in ways that far exceed the high-tech glimpses we get at the CableNet pavilion or “Imagine Park” during this month’s NCTA Cable Show. The multiple sectors of the TV industries that build receivers, package content and sell advertising are changing their very make-up as new competitors enter the business. The resulting revisions may not manifest themselves in the immediate future (the next 18 months), but some of the successful products and services will trickle into operation during the decade.

If form follows function, the look and feel of TV receivers are in play, and not just because of mobile/handheld video. “Leaked” (or merely purloined or imagined) versions of the long-rumored Apple TV receiver indicate a new form factor, with a wider and slightly curved screen; it may be optimized for video displays that are not merely images from sitcoms, cop dramas and talk shows.

Separately, Ikea, the furniture retailer, allegedly spent more than two years developing its all-in-one Uppleva smart TV  that blends an advanced video receiver and display into the furniture. For its first venture into electronics production, Ikea teamed with TCL, the huge Chinese electronics manufacturer, to create an integrated device; it reminds me of a streamlined version of grandma’s ‘50s vintage entertainment console with TV, music and other features all-in-one unit. Uppleva digital display furniture is expected to go on sale in America next year for under $1,000.

As for Samsung’s foray into ad insertion, the company is working with OpenX Technologies, which is developing a system that lets advertisers place targeted messages on Samsung phones and tablets. The project will begin after July and, according to The Wall Street Journal, is the first strike in Samsung’s attempt to bring targeted advertising to other electronic devices, including its Internet-connected TV sets.

Like other tech promises, these visions of tomorrow’s “TV” are disruptive to a number of industries. They come at a time when the legacy structure of the TV industries is facing a shift. Maybe we’ll hear more visions about what TV should look like during this week’s this week’s SMPTE Forum on Emerging Media Technologies in Geneva (May 13-15). The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, if anyone, should have a grasp on what tomorrow’s TV will look like and what kinds of images it will display.

Broadcasters are already grappling with the challenge of next generation television. An engineering-oriented global consortium - the Future or Broadcast TV initiative  - formalized its mission at a meeting during last month’s NAB convention. Broadcast associations and authorities from North and South America, Europe, China and Japan will try to define a truly global terrestrial broadcast TV standard.

FOBTV’s mission comes just as other entities are rethinking what TV should look like. In Japan, which has seen its once-dominant TV manufacturing sector diminish as Korean and Chinese TV makers ascend, the government is backing a domestic alliance that would allow major Japanese TV set producers to pool their engineering skills and research-and-development funds. The incarnation of this vision is Japan Display Inc., a joint venture between Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi. Just last month, the group, which was created in November, announced its initial plans to capture the largest share of the world’s small- and mid-size flat-panel TV market within five years.

All of these attempts to re-imagine the video viewing device and the value chain behind it come as the content side of the business is in upheaval. NBCUniversal president and CEO Steve Burke offered a telling comment at a Creative Artists Associates retreat a few weeks ago. Burke told the assembled talent agents that the movie business is in “steady decline,” according to The Wrap. He observed that profit margins for the movie business have gone from double-digits, to single- digits to nonexistent, the report said - suggesting that the long-promised overhaul of content production may be in plays.

As the mantra declares, content is king, or something along those lines. As new digital content emerges, and as the ecosystem through which it is delivered, displayed and funded evolves, the way we watch TV will change dramatically. We all know that and some of actually believe it. We’ll only see a tiny glimpse of the near-term possibilities at the Cable Show in Boston.

But we better be ready for what happens - even if it’s years away.

September