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April 6, 2010

[berkman] Christian Sandvig on the future of TV

Christian Sandvig is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “The Television Cannot Be Revolutionized.” [NOTE: I am live-blogging, making mistakes, getting things wrong, leaving things out, not spellpchecking. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK and do not assume this is an accurate reflection of Christian’s talk.]

He begins by crediting Gil Scott Heron for the title. He says he’s looking for a research agenda for studying TV, especially three bottlenecks: distribution, search, and genre.

He talks about a 1995 effort to create a cable channel (The Puppy Channel, then Channemals) that was all cute animals all the time. The creator’s market research showed it would capture a respectable 0.1% of the US TV market. So, he went to Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, and Ted Turner, but they thought it was “too weird” an idea for cable. He found it’d cost $17M to distribute it himself.

So, says Christian, the creator launched ThePuppyChannel.com. no one is watching it, but people are watching cute animals on YouTube, etc. The bottleneck has been broken, but it still looks like 1995. E.g., YouTube has a Rentals beta and puts ads everywhere. “YouTube is behaving like a television network and not like a tube for you.” The person behind the recent redesign (Margaret Stewart) of YouTube said “We want you to go into passive mode, sit back, and watch.” We used to think that the Net and Net TV were about interactivity.

TV is important, Christian says. A Ball State U study in 2009 looked at what Americans spend their time doing with media. 100% of people use the phone every day. People use video about 6 hours a day in the US. (This includes video on any device.) About 2/3 of views were on YouTube last year. Analysts say YouTube loses money, but Hulu is profitable. One possible conclusion: Dump amateur content.

In an essay, Christian and a colleague compared Life Magazine and You Tube. Life launched as pioneering photo-journalism. Is YouTube becoming like Life magazine?

Christian shows the power law distribution. What would be the ideal distribution, he asks. We don’t want a single producer of media. We don’t want only a long tail because then none of us share any single media content; that would be complete fragmentation. We don’t want only the head, because that’s media concentration, although it would at least give us enough shared experience to have a culture. In fact, says Christian, we shouldn’t be thinking simply about the shape of the curve. If we were talking about monetary income curves, we’d want to do a mobility analysis: How hard is it to move up the curve? It’s not so much the shape as whether you can move up it, he says.

“We seem to be in the process of building two Internets, Christian says, “which is worrying.” Getting your baby video up on YouTube is easy, and you don’t even need YouTube to do it. But, if you want to show the Olympics, NBC has to do a deal with a Net intermediary; if you tried to do it from the server under your desk, it wouldn’t work. History break: Adorno was exercised by the making industrial of culture via things like expensive, complex broadcast studios; the same is happening with the Net because we need expensive, complex hosting/edge-caching services.

A difference between broadcast and Net media: The head of the curve was purposefully built for TV, but emerged for the Net. TV started out with only local audiences because there were no national networks. After a lot of investment and lobbying, after 1962 we have a national TV system, built to satisfy advertisers.

The Net is supposed to be a cheaper form of distribution than TV. Is this true? If you use Amazon Web Services to distribute a video to a million people, is it cheaper than TV? It’s a hard comparison because TV bundles in the costs of building a market. So compare putting on a late-night one-minute infomercial. The costs are surprisingly similar.

Christian asks why more people aren’t doing research on this and on mobility. In part, he thinks, this is because of the way university departments are structured; they don’t always have people combine expertise in media and Net infrastructure.

Second bottleneck: Search. Videos become popular through being featured on distribution home pages, and on recommender systems. Chris Anderson says recommender systems help you find unpopular results. But there’s no reason for a system to design their algorithms that way, instead of promoting more popular systems. These systems look at things like featured videos (which can be paid placements). Steven Wittens in 2009 found that the algorithm tends to match view counts: If you look at a video, it will recommend other videos with the same or greater number of views.

Finally, the third bottleneck: Genre. How do unpopular things become popular? So much on YouTube apes the conventions of broadcast genres. Parodies of television sitcoms. Parodies of newscasts. Does mobility depend on adopting broadcast genres? Is YouTube just the A&R of the tv industry, externalizing the development of new talent?

Christian says he’s surprised that television seems to be going backwards. Distribution: He’s looking for ways to study this. And, he says, policy issues depend on this as well. E.g., Princeton has a distributed, p2p edge-caching system, sans Akamai. Search: See Frank Pasquale, Christian says. Search: Maybe vlogging, video game commentary, or animal videos are the new genre.

Q: Google says it puts user experience first. Are they betraying that at YouTube?Are they serving users by driving them to popular videos?
A: It’s hard, because people’s wants can be trained. Their search algorithms may reinforce popularity.

Q: You set up a dichotomy. TV is still transforming. There are more channels than content. TV is heading to the Net. Why not see this as a convergence?
A: I admit that in the framing I’ve emphasized a question of Internet exceptionalism. But, this, the Berkman Center, is Ground Zero for Internet exceptionalism.
Q: Maybe the conclusion is that people want mass hits and a long tail.
A: We don’t have good tools for arguing about what we want the shape of the curve to be, but we could about mobility.

Q: What about marketing? That makes a big diff about where you are in the curve. Networks are the biggest advertisers of themselves.
A: Yes, marketing is crucial. We’ve also unintentionally made capital requirements for distribution. I’d like a way to host a video that isn’t hugely expensive.,br>
Q: Why not be in the tail?
A: Chris Anderson says it’s finding your niche, but you could also call it total irrelevance. You want everyone to be able to construct culture.

Q: Isn’t BitTorrent the tool you’re looking for?
A: Any p2p performance tracks to page rank. The ones that will perform best are the ones that are popular.
Q: We want more bandwidth for the popular, and less for not popular.
A: We want a route to move from unpopular to popular. If I put it on my host, I’ll get hit if popular zooms.

Q: Could we be going back to the CompuServ model where we paid but the content was good?
A: Normatively, if we paid for it, there’d be a lot of advantages. Right now we have a sender-mostly-pays system, which is why we have edge-caching.

Q: How much does the culture of the users matter, vs. the culture of the distributors? What happens when users start to game the system?
A: One of the best way to find out about the algorithms is look to people who use these services a lot. E.g., the search engine optimizers. And the new users of new media tend to bring forward assumptions and behaviors from the old culture. Cf. Claude Fischer. Amanda Lotts in The Television Will Be Revolutionized focuses on the old industry. It’d be interesting to see how the old TV folks think about the new one.

Q: Content will flow uphill to money. TV has moved toward the Net. We watch when we want. We’ll see a merge of the two technologies. Understanding why some videos go viral would be valuable, because that will attract money.
A: It’s such a challenging research challenge. There are so many factors involved. But, I do want to say that my talk does recognize the influence of money.

Q: [yochai] You are proposing three distinct kinds of research projects: 1. Look at video creators and musicians. Mimi Ito on anime movie videos: they’re not primarily on YouTube. Look at how hard it is for a producer community to reach the relevant audience. And how important is that, normatively. 2. How much does a user see, read, or hear that is not news and that does not come through capital-intensive media? What is the flow of streams that people watch? We don’t know the answer to that. 3. What is the ability to set the agenda for what is broadly viewed as culture? MediaCloud looks at agenda-setting over time. Start with case studies. E.g., find 50 of the 895,000 viewers of the autistic kids YouTube.
A: This talk is a reaction against looking at how artists reach their desired communities. Lots of research is being done on this. How virtuous communities arise is not the most pressing question. More important: Are there new cultural gatekeepers arising?
A: Imagine that the answer of #2 is the 40% spend 50% of their time on content that doesn’t reach more than 100 people…

Q: Anita Elbersee [sp] says that the Web is magnifying the impact of blockbuster media. This gives the mainstream little incentive to be revolutionized. What’s the impetus to change?
A: Chris Anderson’s book doesn’t hold together because what drives things down the tail you could argue the other way, e.g., the recommender algorithms I talked about. So, what’s the incentive? There’s no “charlie bit my finger” lobby. There are beginning discussions about open video standards. I’d like to see more of a counterpoint to the mainstream approaches. The institutional impetus isn’t there. In most user-produced content, you don’t see revolution, nor would you expect to. Maybe I was being naive.
Q: If you kill the edge-caching business, why wouldn’t everyone get what they want?
A: The fact that you have to rely on third party hosting has effects broadly.

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September 29, 2009

Herkko Hietanen: Network Recorders and Social Enrichment of Television

Herkko Hietanen, a Berkman Fellow, is giving a talk about TV. “Television is really broken.” It’s not providing what consumers want: programs when we want them, where we want them. It lacks interaction with other viewers and with broadcasters. It has ads. It’s geographically limited. If you had to pitch TV to a venture capitalist, it would have a hard time getting funding.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Herkko gives a brief history of the highlights. VCRs were an early attempt to fix tv. This frightened the broadcasters, who took it to court, where — in Sony vs. Betamax — they lost. The court said the manufacturers were not responsible for infringing uses because the devices had non-infringing uses, and personal use was declared a fair use. Satellites extend over-the-air (OTA) broadcast. Community antennas were first set up by stores selling TV sets. Now cable is dominant. But contracts limit core innovation. “If you’re afraid you’ll piss off your content provider, you’re not going to do something that’s good for the consumer.”

There has been some innovation in the core. On-demand video. Time-Warner “LookBack” lets you view any show on the day it’s broadcast at any time during that day. Cable also provides a whole lot of channels. But, “Intelligence in the middle stops innovation at the edge.” The industry has litigated against just about everything innovative. E.g., Cablevision want to launch a service that would centralize storage rather than putting it in the set-top boxes. Just about everyone sued Cablevision for copyright infringement. The court saw that every user would have their own copy of a saved show. The court decided it doesn’t matter where the copies are stored. Herkko says it’s too bad it didn’t go to the Supreme Court so we’d have a definitive decision.

The problem with mythtv, Herkko says, is that it’s not user-friendly. [I spent 1.5 yrs trying to get MythTV to work, and failed :( Wendy Seltzer, seated across the table, has been using MythTV for years.] Tivo is easy but not all that easily hackable. You can’t share TiVo’ed shows, you can modify the code in the box. ReplayTV got sued for having a skip commercials feature, and went bankrupt.

Herkko points to living room clutter as another problem with TV today.

Herkko looks forward to PVRs getting connected to the Internet, because connected users create social networks, and they start to innovate. “We want stupid networked records and intelligent open client-players.” We want connected and tagged shows. We’ll have interactive TV for real, including gambling. Social groups could recommend what to watch.

This all creates privacy problems. E.g., an MIT study discovered they could identify gays by analyzing their social networks, with a high degree of accuracy.

At some point, users will probably start sharing their resources, cluster their recorders. Why should everyone record the same show over and over? Why get it from a central recorder when your neighbors have a copy? Of course, this is what got Replay TV into trouble, Herkko notes. He thinks that the social interaction around shows will happen before and after the show, because people won’t sit with a keyboard in their laps. [Since I’m on the backchannel as I listen to him, I guess I disagree.]

What about ads? Adding social networks would mean that people could watch ads they actually want to watch.

Overall: TV can be fixed. Social networks. Socially-oriented recorders.

Q: This is a compelling vision of the opposite of the Net. The Net is smart at the edges and dumb in the middle. TV has been the opposite. You seem to hope that the future will invert so consumers can get what they want. But consumers have never gotten what they wanted. What will change it?
A: We need brave entrepreneurs to test it in the courts. Having network recorders isn’t that different from having a VCR.

Q: When you were talking about the keyboard in your lap, I think that’s wrong generationally.
A: Voice works while watching tv. But typing and sharing the screen doesn’t.

Q: You’re talking about what the cable companies will do. But then there’s the stuff in the IP world: mythTV, Boxee, etc. That’s where the exciting stuff is.
A: Innovation at the core is very slow, while innovation at the edge is happens very fast.

Q: If the Internet arises to bypass the core, will the quality decline? Will it be more like YouTube style?
A: That’s a real concern. If everyone skips the ads, then there won’t be profit in producing high quality shows. Although there are also premium channels. And in Finland we pay an annual fee and get 4 channels.

Q: There are a lot of forces driving the centralization of TV. With that comes control against innovation at the edges. Is TV going to change or be changed by people sharing content from the edges?
A: If we force a change on TV, the broadcast flag will be re-introduced. Big audiences still demand the lay-back experience.
Q: The sitting back phenomenon has persisted for 50 yrs. Why will it continue?

Q: What is your main research question?
A: When recorders get connected, what sort of innovation are we going to get?

Q: Don’t we need non-Net neutrality to ensure that the video experience over the Net is good enough to inspire innovation in that space?
A: It can be done in other ways. You don’t need immediate delivery of all packets if you’re downloading for viewing late. E.g., in Finland I have a box that records 2 weeks of all 10 channels.

Q: The picture you’re painting is not very TV-like. It’s not broadcast, not one-directional, the business model doesn’t work, we’ll be using our computers…So, it seems like you’re dissolving what TV is. Rather talking about the “social enrichment of TV” [the title of Herkko’s talk], we should be talking about the visual enrichment of the Internet. E.g., how do you see Hulu, which has some community features.
A: I defined TV at the outset: It’s geographically bounded, it’s broadcast, it’s scheduled, etc. And Hulu takes some of the edge approach, but it’s very much a core app. We’re going to see a big shift of control from the rights owners to consumers.

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