I’ve long been a keen observer in the growing war of opinions over the future of intellectual property rights. Just a few days ago, ABC, NBC and CBS decided to block Google TV devices from streaming from their websites, joining Hulu in what appears to be a last-ditch effort in forcing Google to cough up concessions it really shouldn’t have to. This got me thinking, so I shall leave a few notes here for my future reference.
Google TV is basically Google’s attempt to remake Microsoft’s failed WebTV concept from the 90s, i.e. an integrated web-connected set-top box or TV that combines the functions of DVR, web browser, media player and content aggregator.
There are many cynical arguments against the concept of web-based TV, some of them valid, but it looks increasingly clear that the future of television lies with a flexible delivery system that maximizes convenience for the consumer and not rigidly structured channels and cable packages that sell you two million channels so that you can watch one show. It is why Apple’s iTunes Store sells individual episodes instead of subscriptions to cable streams. I would even argue that the rise of BitTorrent is a stronger indication for this desire for convenience than anything else.
Therefore, it’s inevitable that something like Google TV will eventually be the way we consume media (other than a full-fledged computer) — a device integrated with the TV that is capable of telling us what new episodes are just released, provides us with the capability to search, organize and discover media content, allows us to instantly watch what we want to watch and comes with usable implementations of micro-transactions and targeted advertising to pay for the content. Google TV does not yet do all that and others have tried and failed spectacularly, but today’s Google probably has a better shot at this elusive goal than anyone else ever had.
This is of course a terrifying idea for the major networks. After all, bundling is how they have always sold television. If people can choose to consume the most popular shows directly, then the traditional association between popular franchises and their respective network’s brand name is greatly diminished. This threatens the very financial foundation of television networks: monetization through advertisements. (Interesting note: remember how there used to be no advertisements on cable channels because we already paid for the subscription? Hmm.)
So really, it’s understandable that they will do whatever to resist change in the short term. The problem is, will it work in the long run? And if it will not work, then is temporary resistance going to cause more harm than good?
My feeling is that the major networks know that the writing is on the wall, but they just can’t figure out what exactly the words say. They are buying time. They offer web streaming (within certain limits) on their own websites to people with computers, and it should be obvious that Google TV is really just a general computing device running Android OS and Chrome browser.
Blocking Google TV is therefore not only technically silly but of dubious practical value. It really shouldn’t matter to the networks whether the end user streams the content they offer for free on their websites with a Macbook running Safari, a self-built Linux desktop running Firefox or an Android mini computer running Chrome.
If Google chooses to fight the fight, it can easily bypass the filter by changing the default setting for an existing user agent string option in Chrome and have it report itself as a regular PC. (You can argue about DMCA‘s anti-circumvention provisions, but it’s quite obvious that user agent filtering can hardly count as copyright protection.)
But Google is not going to that extreme (but it does quietly let the users have the option to do so) because it too knows that the writing is on the wall. Why be an asshole when you know that you are going to win?
The networks are threatened by the idea that Google TV sets out to promote the unbundling of TV shows and in doing so dilute the value of traditional network channels, but this idea is not new at all. Nothing Google TV does is new to those of us who have long been able to do the same on our computers. The problem is that Google TV sets out to reinvent the idea of television itself, instead of being sold merely as a computer that happens to play videos. Or in other words, the problem is that Google TV is connected to a TV instead of a monitor, even if the distinction is more imaginary than real.
Ultimately, just as YouTube survived the lawsuits and criticisms directed at it by major content producers, Google TV, or something similar to it, will prevail. My feeling is that the major networks will eventually relent and deal with Google TV when they figure out how to monetize it properly. But for now, they have to take ridiculous measures like this to assert their control and to get a better deal when that eventuality comes.
The distinction between computers and televisions is becoming more and more meaningless. While waiting for television to catch up with the Internet, people like me will stick to BitTorrent. It offers the convenience promised by a post-television future today, but has the unfortunate drawback of providing no compensation to the content owner. But as the end user, the latter is not my concern. Television networks could learn a thing or two from Crunchyroll.