Aimed at the rising consumer appetite for ubiquitous access to video content, cable operators' new business mantra is: Any content, anytime, anywhere, on any device. It's a mantra that is ringing up dollar signs on Wall Street and providing a feel-good consumer story for Washington politicians.
Programmers, reading the same tea leaves, have stepped up to the plate to authorize content for different platforms, experimenting with different business models at the risk of upsetting current revenue streams.
No one is quite sure where it will all lead, but it has made life terribly interesting and unsettling for media companies.
An unseen byproduct, and potential downside to this new Wild West, is the raising of consumer expectations beyond the capabilities of service providers and equipment vendors to deliver on the “any-any-any” proposition in a timeframe consumers expect.
Case in point: the recent National Collegiate Athletic Association Men's Basketball Tournament. Consumers, in theory, could access all 64 games on the Web via CBSSportsLine.com, cstv.com or NCAASports.com.
But in any major market, the live game on the local CBS affiliate was not available online. So the 64-game promise was more like 40 to 44 games.
Sure, blackouts are nothing new for viewers. But another issue probably arose for the first time in the minds of some sports fans: How do I hook up my PC to the TV so I can watch these games on a bigger screen? For the average nontech-type consumer, such a setup is far easier said than done.
Picture resolution wouldn't be great, and set-top boxes don't contain browsers to navigate the Internet . There is no simple way to do it today.
Now, new set-tops are shipping with universal serial bus ports, just like the ports on PCs. In theory, the two devices could be hooked together. But as one operator pointed out, content players start to worry when service providers talk about hooking PCs to TVs.
If you can say Napster, piracy and copyright without a cold chill running down your spine, you're probably not a content owner. Operators have made noise about allowing their TV lineups to be viewed on the PC, but there is very little discussion about access in the other direction, from the PC to the TV, for a number of reasons: Copyright, piracy, business-model protection and security, to name a few. Who wants their TV to be infected with an Internet virus?
Yet all those problems don't concern consumers. As video proliferates on the PC, consumers will want to move some of that content to the big screen.
That portability issue arises with iTunes. If you missed ABC's Lost, you can buy it on iTunes, but not via on demand. You can hook up your iPod to your TV, and try to watch old episodes, but it's not a particularly easy or enjoyable experience. You're stuck with the smaller-scale resolution.
Now when a consumer buys Lost on iTunes, perhaps they shouldn't expect to watch it on a big screen. That's not what they paid for. But that's not how consumers think. There is a growing expectation that video is video, and consumers should be able to watch it on their TV sets.
It took my 15-year-old son all of about 15 seconds to ask this question after he downloaded a Lost episode to his iPod at Christmas.
Linking devices is now commonplace. Plenty of consumers shoot video with digital camcorders, and play that video on their TVs. Transfering video from their PCs or even Internet sites to the TV, perhaps unthinkable five years ago, is now a daily occurrence for thousands of consumers.
How about multiroom digital video recording? Suppose you just bought an HDTV set and have an HD DVR that is rapidly filling up. You can get another HD DVR for a second TV in the house and record high-definition programming on that device, even though that second HD DVR is attached to a standard-definition TV set.
Now try to figure out a way to get HD content from DVR “B” to the DVR that is connected to the HDTV set. Today, it's an MIT research project, involving dongles, wireless devices and calls to your IT buddy.
The point is that once an industry — cable, telco, programmer — opens the door to portability, it's hard to shut. The key will be to deliver, as quickly as possible, what consumers asked for without waiting for the completion of an 18-month equipment product cycle.