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Herkko Hietanen: The social future of television

Herkko Hietanen of the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology tells his audience at the Berkman Center that “television is really broken.” The medium isn’t rising to its full potential, isn’t providing consumers with programs when and where they want them. To set the scheduled for what you want to watch, you need to be at your television. And there are frustrating geographic restrictions on programming – Herkko wonders why it’s hard to watch Finnish TV in the US. Television was created to be consumed – it lacks interactivity with broadcasters and other viewers. It forces consumers to sit through irrelavent commercials.

It could be so much better, he tells us. And it would be very hard to pitch a VC on a model of ad supported, broadcast over the air television today.

We can think of the VCR as an early attempt to fix the TV. Predictably, it made rights owners fearful, and they brought in the lawyers. Those lawyers lost. The Sony Betamax decision determined that manufacturers were not liable for direct copyright infringement because the technology had substantial noninfringing uses. Herkko now sees great potential in networked video recorders to fix what’s wrong with television.

He offers a quick history of television:

– In the early days, TV aired over radio masts, and was essentially a local medium, with some local character and color. But governments quickly intervened and restricted who could construct an antenna and use spectrum

– To try to solve the problem of broadcasting over large areas, post-WWII strategies proposed a network of B-29 superfortress aircraft flying above the US, transmitting TV. It’s not actually a stupid idea, he tells us. But it was obviated by the rise of satellite TV, initially used to broadcast programs throughout TV networks, and later moved to consumer dishes. Eventually, companies figured out how to encrypt, and therefore commercialize, their systems.

– Community antennas represent a different model for distributing signals. Communities in valleys had difficulty receiving broadcast signals. This was bad for business for local electronics stores. Some responded by building shared antennas, then running cables to homes to share that signal. This has moved towards a highly profitable business, the cable television business, which manages to charge substantial amounts of money for service that’s often poorer than what’s available for free via broadcast television. (Herkko points out that in Boston, he can actually get more HD channels via broadcast than via basic cable.) But there are other benefits of cable – you can deliver individual streams, including individual streams of pornography, which is always a profitable business.

Herkko sees a near-fatal embrace between content providers and cable companies. They’re co-dependent, and scared of alienating one another. But this dependency can limit innovation in services. We’ve seen less development around on-demand video, the ability to watch on demand than we might expect than we might expect. Instead, we’ve seen “enhancements” like DRM and the broadcast flag, and heavy litigation against anyone entering the markets. Basically, we see a lot of intelligence added at the center of a network, with dumb, constrained edges that are prevented from innovating.

He looks in some detail at recent litigation surrounding Cablevision. Cablevision designed a system that used very dumb set top boxes to communicate a user’s desire to record a show to a central recorder. Users could then retrieve recordings from the central server via the set top box. For Cablevision, this reduced capital expenditure per client, allowing a huge central storage service rather than millions of individual, expensive, failure-prone hard drives. “Every network lined up to sue Cablevision for direct copyright infringement.” But the court saw that Cablevision was making copies for each user, not just sharing a single copy, and ruled in Cablevision’s favor. This contrasts to mp3.com, which had a single copy of each song, not multiple copies.

Home PVRs are either closed and user-friendly, or open and very hard for ordinary people to use, like MythTV. TIVO is the friendly market leader, but it’s a walled garden. Herkko sees the market leadership as related to friendly relationships with networks, pointing out that their main competitor, ReplayTV, was sued out of existence by broadcasters.

“When recorders get connected, users get connected,” Herkko argues. Connected users create social networks , and social networks can enable tinkering at the edges. But rightsholders will try to protect their rights from attack, which will push them towards stupid networked recorders that just record shows. There may be space for innovation from intelligent, open client players. This is a way of turning television tubes into internet tubes, bringing around the “3G” of television.

What might this mean? Users could label ads for one another, which might allow the blocking of targetted ads. Communities could discuss and enhance television, which might be useful for programs like Lost. We could imagine gambling happening alongside live television sports. And he predicts that we’ll see communities imposing collective standards on television, allowing and community or a congregation to collectively filter television for their viewers.

It doesn’t make economic sense to have individual recorders – Cablevision’s model is a better one, in technical terms. And this idea of centralized recording – or even networked individual recorders – opens some big new opportunities. These systems might even save advertising, as they’ll give us far better data on who’s watching what, enabling systems like Nielsen to provide accurate data again. They’d also enable mobile TV – anything you can store online could be streamed to your mobile device. But these systems also store a great deal of valuable information – he notes a recent paper on Facebook that suggests the possibility of determining someone’s sexual orientation by examining a network of friends – could we tell if someone’s gay based on what they watch?

Herkko ends with the observation that social television isn’t a new concept. We’ve seen lots of experimentation with split screens, which allow chat alongside live broadcast. “But television is a lean-back experience,” Herkko offers – you don’t want to share screen estate with your friends. Instead, he believes that social interactions will be before and after the show.

11 thoughts on “Herkko Hietanen: The social future of television”

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  3. Still, there is something cool about millions of people watching or listening to the same thing at the same time, and the sense of community that can bring.

  4. Thank You Ethan for the great summary of the talk. You did great job summing up my somewhat disorganized thoughts on the subject.

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