By Alexander Cameron, Managing Director, Digital TX Ltd.
Even 10 seconds of the ridiculously over-valued X-Factor and American Idol make me want to vomit. They are so frighteningly mediocre, vacuous and repetitive that I invariably find myself staring into a worrying abyss of creative bankruptcy that's pumped into millions of people's homes every night through their TV screen. On the side of the road gossip magazines are flourishing, all with the same look, formula and material.
Recently when I was mid-rant, complaining about how Simon Cowell, the man who gave us the TeleTubbies single, was able to accurately judge talent at a karaoke popularity contest on its artistic merit, I screamed out that what I wanted was another Jimi Hendrix. That guy blew everyone away and was a revolution. People's hair stood on end when they saw him play on their black and white TVs. Nobody had seen anything like it, even having seen Elvis. The Sex Pistols followed.
I have a confession to make. BT Vision doesn't excite me. Neither do any of the fancy new IPTV services that are rolling out all over the world. I'm thoroughly underwhelmed, and I'm sure I'm not supposed to be feeling that way, working in the IPTV industry. But honesty is usually more important than diplomacy from an advocate. I hope more than anything that they take off as it will be a springboard to more interesting ideas.
The story is the same with every digital TV service. You get a set-top box, a socket in the wall, some menus and a bunch of TV channels. It costs slightly more every month and there's nothing on, and even more nothing being added to the noise that surrounds maybe 3 or 4 watchable channels. You can order expensive movies and play games. You can pause TV and record things to watch later. The novelty wears off after a few days.
I don't care how the content gets to me, neither does anyone else. I want there to be something good on I can get adsorbed into and addicted to. Sports and movie packages. Kids packages. Public service channels. That's great, but it's all the same. Re-package and re-brand all you like. It seems companies build services that are deliberately similar to someone else's, and then they'll hold a meeting with an innovative small business where they interrogate them on what their unique selling point is.
There might be some wisdom in that the great British public like and take to things that are familiar. But in avoiding risks you always take a much bigger one. Risk avoidance has become culturally endemic. The best and most amazing things that have ever happened have been massively different and incredibly risky. They excite and inspire on a greater level. A little rock and roll would do the IPTV business a world of good.
Is this it? Is this the best that billions of dollars and some very clever people can come up with? It's not pressing my buttons, and I know I'm not alone.
I want more. I want a Hendrix. I want to get excited again.
The ironic thing is that IPTV is exciting. Really damned exciting. The possibilities and potential of it are incredible: it's democratising media-land for the first time ever, and economies in the third world are being revitalised through e-learning and technological transformation. The effects will be felt for decades and it's the next stage of the Internet walking through our door. But we get yet another cable TV. And the reception is currently a slow hand-clap.
I was at the HQ of a well-known ISP recently and they asked what they could offer in a TV service that was different to what is already out there. A lot of telcos are struggling with how to enter the race because there's not much room for anything new. Everything is targeted to young males under 35 and revolves around Freeview or an expensive LLU network. They have a point. It's not easy. There's only so many triple play and Freeview PVRs you can offer so many ways to package the same old thing.
There's always room for something new.
The more I think about it and the more the days go on, the more I am becoming convinced we need to stop looking at how to put a TV service together and what to put on, and change the way its watched entirely. I'm not talking about some hyped-up, schedule-busting on-demand system that is a marketing agency's wet dream, but a step further. We need to really come at it all from a different angle and stop being worried that people won't get it or take it up. We need to put something together that's blindingly easy to use and totally, utterly different in every way to what we're used to.
And while we're dreaming it up, we're going to blast Voodoo Chile and Red House from the rafters so the whole world vibrates to the sound of a screaming Fender Stratocaster. Viva La Revolution.
So lately I've been asking myself what I'd do if you gave me £100 million for a new TV platform, and it's a rolling mental project that I'm sure will grow into a wild beast over time.
Naturally, everything on demand. Everything. No exceptions. Damn the consequences. Just let the thing run away with itself. You watch what you want, when you feel like it.
Don't make me do anything. I want to sit back and be entertained. I don't care about the wiring or how it gets to me. I don't want to explore or search. I want the best stuff put in front of me but not pushed so much it overwhelms me. I don't want to have use my remote more than necessary. I'm not active, and I don't want red button services. I want you to tell me so I don't have to work after I've got back from a day a work.
I'd start with the whole idea of a live TV "channel" and ditch it outright. A channel is just a playlist of Digibeta tapes and/or digital files that are scheduled to go out one after another from a data centre. Enough of that. We'll have a "now playing" live transmission but from now on, you can tune into anything on the playlist scheduled to TX that day at any time, including things that haven't shown yet. When you fire up your menu, you get a list of what's playing now. Every item that runs on the TV channel playlist runs on-demand, instead of a continuous stream.
Then, every channel and file would have a label on it telling me how many people were watching it at that moment or had queued it up on their PVR to record it. They would be queued up in terms of how topical and popular they are. I would base my choices on the herd's thoughts, even if that was the truly dire American Idol. Anything that is universally derided by everyone (dating channels with bad audio, cheap porn tat) drops off the menu. I need to be able to delete anything I don't like and banish it from every appearing on my menu again. Offend my eyes, and you are gone in a puff of smoke.
Then I'd pull out the axe and take a leaf from the Stalin school of content distribution, as Universal music did recently. Release everything for free, supported by advertising. Fight the labels and studios if we have to. If you don't want the advertising, upgrade to software that blocks them. All movies for free. All catch-up TV for free. Tell me if I've watched it in the past already and what other people think. Everything, free. No more Teleport or Box Office. That would cost a lot of money, but we have £100 million to play with of course, so we wouldn't lose too much sleep.
Stop trying to squeeze more money out of me for everything. I don't want extra charges on my bill, and I don't want to pay silly money for something I only watch once or twice. Put it all in for free and give me a real bargain. Don't give me added extras I don't need or want or lose me in the small print. In my service, everyone gets everything simple, free and packed to the brim.
The physical look of my service would be totally customisable with themes. Design, share and load your own programme guide. Download someone else's. Channels appear as animated screenshots with pictures instead of text. When you're watching something, your TV is online like MSN Messenger. Your TV is part of a simplified social network like MySpace, where you can add people and things of interest that can introduce you to new programs, movies, artists and material you'd like with a graceful and simple press on the remote. No effort needed.
Why do we even need a set-top box or remote control anyway? My Bluetooth remote is as big as an iPod mini, has hardly any buttons and is sexier than the Wii. I can carry it in my pocket and I can page it from the TV if I lose it somewhere under the piles of gossip magazines my girlfriend has left lying around. While you're at it, give my set-top box the same amount of flash memory I have on my key ring memory stick, not just the pitiful 16Mb I have now. Maybe then there would be enough to do something interesting, software-wise.
I want VideoMail. I want all my messaging available and overlaid on my screen. When I'm watching a movie, I want a discrete Outlook-style alert that I can respond to when I receive a new picture message or voicemail. When I do, my movie should pause automatically and overlay my messaging centre. I don't want to send anything, I just want to sit back, listen to my voicemail, open my VideoMail, read my text messages and laugh at the absurd MMS messages people send me. When I finish and close the overlaid screen, the movie should restart where it left off. I'll turn the alert off if it's too annoying.
Give me TV BitTorrent so I can browse simple lists from torrent search engines with my remote to illegally download pirated movies and TV programmes onto my PVR's hard drive. Alert me when they're finished downloading and let me share them illegally with other people using the same type of P2P mechanisms I have on my PC. Let me screw with other networks and watch 24 before I'm meant to be able to. Let me make playlists to send to the beautiful girl I like who will think it's romantic that I've taken the time to make her a VoD mix tape. Liberate me.
Then give me a free piece of software I can set up on my PC that streams the illegal files directly to the living room in the right codec and aspect ratio for my TV, so I don't have to watch them on the PC or burn a disc. While we're there, give me network DVD so video on-demand isn't so boring and I can justify spending the money on something that resembles what I'd find in an over-priced Blockbuster. I want to browse the special features and look behind the movie.
I want true reality TV, so rig up all the CCTV cameras in my neighbourhood as live streams I can tune into. Let me stalk my ex-girlfriend and take incriminating snapshots when she falls out of the pub at midnight on a Friday. Let me see if the Indian takeaway is still open and whether there is any coffee on the shelf at Mr Patel's store. I want to stream what's playing on my TV elsewhere in the house, like to my PC or to another TV in another room. In fact, I want it streamed over the Internet so I can waste time in the office watching it or show my friends in Canada.
I don't want to go to the cinema on a cold winter evening. Do a deal with Odeon and bring the cinema to my house so I can watch the movie on my spanking new plasma HDTV screen with my girlfriend. When I'm bored I want to watch the popular rubbish on YouTube, so FlashVideo would stream directly onto my TV, using the PC as a decoding/relaying proxy if needs be. Tell me what's good and what everyone else thinks is good, so I don't have to bother working it out and can stroke my stomach on the couch like Bart Simpson.
But most of all, I want to know that what I've got is way beyond Sky Plus and far better than any of the other packaged me-too services you're forced to buy on the high street because there's nothing else. I want to rave about it in the pub and tell everyone how cool it is. I want to know I have all the same things they have and more. I want to be excited. I want to do things differently and in the way I want to. I want you to blow me away and stir my imagination. I don't want to have to get used to it, as I want it to just work out of the box, and be very easy and natural.
And when I connect the scart cable, it needs to be playing Purple Haze at full volume.
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About Digital TX Limited
Formed in early 2004, privately owned and based in London (UK), Digital TX Limited is IPTV/VoD consultants for interactive digital television and broadband media. Some of the keywords you might associate with us are IPTV, Video On-Demand, Triple Play, Broadband Entertainment, Video Over IP, Interactive TV, Network Video Gaming and Telco TV.