TV 2012: A tale of two sets

January 18, 2012

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the era of big, it was the hour of small. It was the age of complexity, it was the era of simplicity. It was an epoch of freedom, it was a time of tyranny. It was the season of two dimensions, it was the moment of 3D. Everything was before us — and we have seen it all.

With apologies to Dickens, there’s a whole lot going on in the world of television, the medium that has dominated the world’s attention for three generations and was supposed to — at the very least — become an also-ran to the Internet. Convergence (in the 1990s’ sense of the word) is happening, but with no clear winner: Computers became TVs, and TVs are becoming internet-connected computers.

Likewise, TV programming has been in something of a renaissance for a decade — yeah, sure, for every Mad Men there’s a Work It (or 20 of them) — and even the experimentation in programs has something to do with technology, which has made it possible to watch on demand, and in places and at times of our choosing, and enabled new competition that entertains us with things that aren’t on TV at all.

But the real innovation is going on with what we used to call “TV sets.” They have gotten immense at the same time they have gotten tiny. They are components of complicated hardware systems, and they are also apps. These two delightfully disruptive strains — size and place — are coexisting in a remarkable way that suggests we are merely in the early part of a story arc that can only benefit the consumer.

It’s a sure sign of welcome chaos that innovation is happening at, well, both ends of the spectrum.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be ugly missteps. For two straight years (blessedly not for a third, though), the lords of the Consumer Electronics Show tried to seduce us into believing that 3D TV should be a consumer device (they aren’t giving up, but that’s a tale for another day). This year “smart TV” was the buzz phrase in Las Vegas. Every major manufacturer is incorporating internet access and apps as we mercifully inch past the era of the clunky set-top box and other peripherals, but still place a premium on padding the nest — er, living room.

At the same time, TV is going anywhere and everywhere. By leveraging the smartphone and tablet revolution, it is newly portable, fueled by hotspots, ubiquitous data networks, and “old” standbys like SlingBox.

Only this week Comcast introduced a limited rollout of its tablet-as-TV service. The nation’s largest cable system joins Time Warner and Cablevision in this mini-revolution that undermines the relevance of the TV set by taking advantage of the most portable flat-screen TV ever made, empowering you to keep watching your show as you move from room to room and from your house to your backyard. It may not seem like much of a development to untether TV only within the confines of your home, but even a small release from this form of house arrest is hugely liberating.

Truly, it is the best of times. But it’s also the worst because now we can taste true freedom for the first time — the end of bundles, the end of rented equipment we don’t want, the end of having to pay for The Cupcake Network when all we really want is The Ferret Channel. Do despair. The content tyrants will have us in a choke hold for quite some time. And what good is an omnipresent TV if it isn’t also omnipotent?

Many hearty souls already make do without cable/sat service or any kind, grabbing high-definition signals over the air and filling in the blanks with torrents, etc. But to cut the cord and still enjoy copious, contemporaneous, non-broadcast programming requires technical bravado and a touch of larceny.

Technology is setting us free from the tethered console, but content is still the stuff of tyranny. Whether you blame the economics of the TV business or miserly corporations, it still makes no sense for the people who make programs to make their fare available entirely à la carte to the end user. We are years away at best from a perfect iTunes for TV or Hulu or the ability to subscribe — where, when and how — to programming now only available in basic-tier baskets. Some entrepreneurs are showing us the way, but don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, TV “sets” are becoming more affordable home theaters that dominate the living room, as well as something you can slip into your pocket and watch here, there and in between.

Of the two possibilities, my bet is on small and stealthy becoming the dominant form. Tablet TV is making it practical to at least reduce one’s dependence on multiple sets served by rented set-top boxes. It lives on a powerful computer that does 1,001 other things — a very practical realization of the ancient dream of convergence. It is “good enough” — as powerful as the everywhere-including-here revolution that saw the mobile phone kill the “home telephone.”

The common thread is the Internet. It didn’t kill the video star so much as make the old way of doing things untenable. As it is with any revolution, there will be blood. But when the smoke clears TV Land will be even more of a paradise for us couch potatoes.

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