If the discussion that ensued at today's "Argue the Future 2: Return of the Future" panel was any indication, the battle for the living room will define the coming years. This isn't a new concept; we've spent a lot of time looking at how a wide swath of companies big and small are fighting for control of the most important screen in your home, but the deluge of awe-inspring 4K TVs with no native content helped bring this discussion to the forefront. The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, Lytro's Eric Cheng, and Hulu's Andy Forssell spent the better part of the hour breaking this conflict apart along with our own Joshua Topolsky and Nilay Patel.
"Everyone is trying to revolutionize TV," Mossberg said. "It looks to a tech company like low-hanging fruit. The software is bad, and the integration with the wider internet world is bad, so it's low-hanging fruit. What is the obstacle?" For starters, it's the "crazy rights landscape" that makes it nigh-impossible for any one service to have all of the content consumers want. "I'm waving money in the air and the rights structure is preventing me from having [what I want]," Patel said while discussing the hoops he has to jump through just to watch the Green Bay Packers every year. "I think not capitalizing on what is obvious demand is bad business."
"Everyone is trying to revolutionize TV."
Of course, it's not clear that the cable providers and the rights-holders are hurting — at least not yet. "[Cable companies] look at multi-channel subs and they've hung in around 100 million homes," Forssell said. "It wavers a little bit, but it hasn't dropped. So far it hasn't hit the bottom line." That leads to the question of whether "normal" consumers even know or care — after all, we're in the middle of a content revolution. "It seems to me like TV is better than ever," Topolsky said. Mossberg quickly agreed, saying that "this is the golden age of TV."
Who wants to pay for an expensive cable plan that serves them ads?
Despite the quality content available, there's still a growing feeling that consumers will eventually tire of paying for content they don't want. " I hated having this expensive [cable service] that I paid for every month that served me ads, said Cheng when asked why he cut the cable cord years ago. And if a recent Verge forum thread on how to watch TV was any indication, cable boxes are playing second fiddle to the main over-the-top services fighting for living room dominance. "Even the people who buy the cable are thinking to themselves, 'this is secondary to what I see on the internet or I get distributed online,'" said Patel. "That is the biggest danger to the cable industry."
The industry's push toward 4K TVs could be the spark that ignites these issues in the very near future, despite the fact that it's not at all clear how fast consumers will adopt this new — and expensive — technology. "There is a part of me that feels just a little bit like we've been burned by things before — like 3D," said Topolsky. Despite that, there's little doubt the TV industry will force 4K sets to consumers, which will force the issue of content distribution to the forefront once again. "Having the sets in peoples homes is what creates demand for the content," said Patel.
"Having the sets in peoples homes is what creates demand for the content."
Once that starts happening, it'll be a mad rush as providers battle to be the first to offer programming for these new sets. "As people get their 4K televisions, it'll create demand for the content," Patel said, "and the online services that can provide that content faster than the cable companies will begin to seriously challenge cable." Sony CEO Kaz Hirai expressed similar sentiments to Topolsky in an earlier interview, saying that the company wants to drive the expansion of broadband to help facilitate the delivery of 4K content — without better connections, 4K sets will likely be short on native video.
While this race to 4K could likely be the defining battle of the next few years, it doesn't have to be the only way. Mossberg talked at length about the many issues with current TV like fragmented content availability and the need for multiple devices, and finished his thought by saying that improved features "will be more important over the next three years than doubling the resolution of Blu-ray." Sounds a bit like the kind of mentality Apple might take if it was planning to release its own TV set, doesn't it?
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