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Forget the Hype: The Future of Television Isn’t What You Think

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It’s easy to talk about the future of television as if it won’t exist. With all the hype surrounding streaming, you might be inclined to think that TV is close to uttering its dying breath. I know that I’ve been guilty of portraying that future, where consumers transition between linear broadcast and online streaming and people cut the cord, ditch their cable subscriptions, and consume everything over the internet. But is that really the case? Will online video replace television as we know it?

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that the answer to that question isn’t a simple yes or no. Although there is a lot of data indicating that online streaming is growing fast, cord-cutters are still the minority. Millennials subscribe to cable as much as any other demographic, and people are still watching five times as much television as they are streaming video. Of course, I could argue that statements like that (backed by data from Limelight Networks, Nielsen, and others) are “point in time.” They describe the now, not the future; the transition from linear broadcast to online streaming is a generational one. The long view likely reveals a different picture. But the elephant-in-the-room question remains: What’s the relationship between traditional television and online streaming? Because, really, if there’s going to be a transition at some point, it’s probably less about the technology and more about the business models. Content owners and distributors will need to understand how to migrate their existing operations (like generating revenue from ads) to a different delivery method.

I think that when we talk now about a transition between the two delivery methods, we can’t see the forest for the trees. What we should be talking about is what is happening underneath the surface of this supposed migration—video content, as we know it, is changing. From analog to digital, from terrestrial broadcast to IP, video is becoming just a stream of data that can be transported, displayed, and consumed anywhere at any time. In fact, the BBC has been exploring object-based broadcasting, in which the output isn’t a traditional, linear stream but rather a collection of objects and metadata that can be manipulated, reassembled, and consumed by any kind of device. (A BBC blog post features some cool images explaining the entire concept.) The video viewing experience is being decoupled from where it’s watched, whether online or through traditional broadcast. It’s being deconstructed and distilled down into just a stream of bytes. The “future of television” isn’t really about how video will get delivered (broadcast vs. online) but about what we will do with the content, how we will interact with it, how the very experience of watching video will change from wherever we choose to consume it.

If you still want to imagine what television will look like in the future, it will probably be something hybrid—a combination of live and on-demand OTT and broadcast (even if it’s over IP). But it will all be merged together. In the future that I can see, you won’t have to switch between Netflix and your programming guide. Because everything will be exposed via API, XML, and a host of other acronyms, service providers will put video sources together, mash them up, and deliver an experience that unshackles consumers from having to consume content in one specific way.

The future of television isn’t an either/or situation. It’s not linear broadcast or online video. It’s something in between, where it doesn’t matter how the content is being delivered, or to what device. Maybe the word “transition” is the problem. Perhaps we should replace it with something more akin to what’s really happening as people consume more online video: “evolution.”

This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “The Future of Television Isn’t What You Think.”

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