CICIORA’S CORNER - A Breakneck TV Decade

Sun, 01/31/2010 - 7:20pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

Where to from here?

My son’s hobby involves battery management systems for electric vehicles, including the speed-record-holding electric drag bike. Zero to 60 in about 1 second – on a bike! That’s breakneck acceleration. Try to imagine that.

Walt CicioraA decade seems like a long time, especially if you’ve only lived one or two of them. But by the time you’ve passed through four or five, a decade seems like a relatively short time. It seems that the decades go by faster and that more happens in each one. This last decade, the first of the 21st century, has been one of breakneck acceleration in television. It’s hard to know where it goes from here.

Television has accelerated in at least these areas: quality of programming, method of consumption, displays, transmission, storage and cameras.

Certainly, there is a lot of poor programming on television, but I insist that there is wonderful quality, such as PBS, National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, Discovery Channel and a few others. A technically oriented person could easily spend all of his TV time on these channels. But even the dramatic programs have become more creative and clever. Some of these programs have become so complex that they almost must be watched on a DVR. It is very helpful, sometimes necessary, to be able to back up and see a portion of the show again in order to follow and understand the plot. The technology of the DVR has directly enabled more creative programming.

The DVR has changed everything. TiVo came on the scene just before the decade began, and now the DVR is pervasive. Those who have them almost never watch television in “real time.” Often there will be more than one DVR in a home. We now consume television programming on our time schedule, watching what we want when we want it. With “season pass” and “keyword search” features, we can record programming of interest, even without knowing the schedule.

The DVR, of course, has caused great angst in the advertising world. However, advertising via DVR simply means it is more efficient to ignore the ads that are not relevant. Ads that are relevant are watched carefully and repeatedly until their message is digested and they are no longer relevant. For example, when in the market for a car, automotive ads are welcome and watched. After the purchase, they become irrelevant.

Video-on-demand is also pervasive, thanks to the magic capacity boost from digital technology. Individual data streams are now practical. Again, we can watch what we want when we want it. VOD has the further advantage that we don’t have to capture the program in advance.

Display technology has had phenomenal progress over this last decade. It took several decades for display technology to be able to provide the full level of quality that the analog television standard could support. The same was expected for HDTV. But display technology now exceeds the quality that the HDTV standard can supply. That development speed was a surprise. Not only are quality displays available in huge sizes, they also are on cell phones, and even children’s toys.

The broadcast digital television service was launched just before this decade – in November 1998 – by the FCC (DirecTV first offered service in 1994). Now analog broadcasting is all but gone (low-power stations and repeaters can still transmit in analog). Digital television made HDTV possible and hugely increased the number of standard-definition program streams available. Techniques such as switched digital video make essentially infinite programming available; only channels requested are transmitted, and no longer are most streams of video unwatched on a neighborhood node.

Digital storage of video has exploded. I just bought a terabyte hard disk drive for $85. The box claims it can store either 125 DVDs, 77,500 JPEG photos or 20,000 MP3 songs. How long before petabyte drives?

In 1999, just before the decade began, Sony introduced the Digital8 camcorder for more than $1,000 (when that was a lot of money). Currently, much smaller, lighter, better digital consumer cameras are available for one-third as many dollars (that now have only about two-thirds of the purchasing power). Now, pocket digital video cameras that record an hour’s worth of video on semiconductor memory are available for around $150. Digital cameras are everywhere, including on street corners to catch you going through a yellow light!

So where to from here?

Two current hot topics are 3-D and Internet-delivered TV. The press coverage from the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was loaded with 3-D stories. All of the major TV manufacturers are promising “3-D ready” sets on sale this year. Several TV networks are promising 3-D channels. There is a lot of momentum.

Television receivers are now available with Ethernet sockets. At least two brands have Skype-based video telephone capability built in. I just set up a Roku box giving me a Wi-Fi connection to my network and access to thousands of videos.

Fasten your seatbelts for the next decade.


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