Broadcast networks need an upgrade

My wife and I decided, many moons ago, to do away with our satellite.  This decision was constructed with equal parts practicality and idealism.

The whotey whaten now?

Right, let me explain.  We had been having the feeling, that as time passed, Heather and I were becoming slaves to the mind numbing box sitting in our living room.  We weren't talking to each other as much, and I wasn't reading nearly enough.  So in the back of my mind there had been this growing desire to just shut off the idiot box and talk to my wife again... to read more and maybe, just maybe GO OUTSIDE.

So that covers the idealistic component.  Now for the practical bit... Heather and I found out that she was with child back in February and that necessitated a re-examining of our finances, what could stay and what had to go... Satellite was ousted.  So these things together made the decision to ditch the sat pretty easy.

When Idealism dies and practicality is overrated

For the first couple of months it seemed that we were correct.  Heather and I spent much more time talking, reading and yes out of doors.  But slowly we started to miss some of the programs we watched.  Shows like CSI, House and Numb3rs.  These are all excellent shows, and on broadcast television, so I thought, "Self, just hook up an antenna and grab those puppies down from the air!"

Yeah, right.  Let's just say that the reception in my area leaves much to be desired.  So I began a search for... alternate means to get my favorite shows.  Enter bittorent.

On the question of legality

I feel well within my rights of fair use to download digital recordings of programming that is freely available via broadcast television.  Currently there is no precedent for this type of consumption being flagged as illegal.  When there is I will discontinue the practice.

So anywhoo I now have access to HD Wide-screen versions of all my favorite shows.  They are not full quality obviously, but they are pretty astounding in their present form.  This got me to thinking... why are broadcast companies not offering this content for download?  Technologies like bittorrent have made fast, decentralized distribution a reality.  And now that Quicktime 7 is live, we could easily have access to H.264 encoded content, incredible quality with a rather small footprint.

People this is a no-brainer

I mean, the technology is already there.  For those not familiar with the process local affiliates go through to receive content from the mother ship, here is a crash course:

  1. The Corporate Studio, e.g. ABC, CBS or FOX create the programming, then convert it to a high bandwidth digital file.
  2. This digital file is then transmitted via satellite to each local affiliate at least two days before air time, sometimes as much as a week.
  3. The local affiliates then down-sample the file for broadcast over standard carrier waves, or via over-the-air HD.

So as you can see each local affiliate already has access to all the original programming they run in a high quality, digital version, sometimes as much as a week in advance of its air date.  Most of this content is now in wide-screen HD.  If the affiliates would only leverage decentralized distribution, we could have a revolution in our consumption of broadcast media.

But Chris, were is the value in this to the affiliates and more importantly the studios?

Good question.  The value is that in one fail swoop, they could deal a serious blow to PVR's and DVR's.  The trend of time-shifting television content is only going to grow and become more saturated.  Broadcast television makes its revenue from selling commercial spots.  Time-shifting PVR's like TiVo attract users because you can skip and completely cut out commercials, as well as the obvious freedom of watching when you want.

If broadcast television embraced the technology, they could guarantee that their advertisers are still getting the most for their money.  By controlling the distribution of digital content they could ensure that part of that content is advertising.

Also for those of use who just hate advertising, there could be a subscription model.  I would gladly pay 19.95 a month to schedule and download all my favorite shows in high quality sans the commercials.  And I think that I would not be alone in that.

This way they maintain their current revenue stream, paid advertising placement, as well as create a new one, advertising-free subscriptions.  This would also make the controversy over the broadcast flag moot.

The way I see it, the broadcast networks have two options

The first option, is I am afraid the one that we will see play out; Broadcast networks will follow the RIAA and MPAA into the karma destroying waters of criminal prosecution and luddite-ness, fighting the technology instead of using it to their advantage.

Now the second option, and the one I fear, we will not see; Embrace the technology, and give people what they want... on demand content.  Let us choose when and how we watch our favorite shows, give people the freedom to choose they deserve.