Do TV watchers matter to the industry?

With Google pushing into just about every other communications business, it was only a matter of time before it took on the television industry. The search engine behemoth last month unveiled the predictably named Google TV. The service counts Sony, Intel, Logitech and DishTV as partners and promises to leverage Google's Android platform and Chrome browser to bring web content to HDTV sets sometime next year.

The basic idea is nothing new - Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and others have been pursuing web-TV in various forms for some time. Where Google hopes to make a difference - apart from its open-source approach and its claims to make TV and web widgets a seamless, simultaneous experience as opposed to separate functions - is the advertising model. Google TV promises to deliver targeted ads to TV viewers, giving advertisers unprecedented flexibility and accuracy in how they target demographics, get documented feedback on how many people interacted with ads and clicked through, and pay only for the ads viewed.

Oh, and users won't be able to fast-forward through ads.

Many advertisers are, of course, thrilled. Viewers may be a lot less excited about it. But then the TV industry has never really been that interested in what viewers think about its business models.

For example, last month the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia furiously denounced a March decision by Singapore's Media Development Authority to mandate that cable operators StarHub and SingTel must share key pay-TV programming, effectively banning the practice of negotiating exclusive contracts with content providers such as, say, HBO or English Premier League football.

 

CASBAA chief Simon Twiston-Davies did note that "it is consumers who will be the losers, with long-term access to a whole generation of new video content jeopardized" (provided the prediction that content providers would actually rather flee Singapore than comply with the MDA's rules). However, it's not clear how TV consumers benefit from the industry-preferred model of exclusive content contracts that not only give pay-TV providers a monopoly on high-value content - thus limiting the choice of service providers - but also potentially force viewers to sign up with more than one service provider just to get to the content they want.

Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association of America will now allow pay-TV providers to broadcast movies even as they're still playing in theatres, thanks to the US FCC's decision to allow them to activate the "Selective Output Control" (SOC) technology in set-top boxes. SOC would allow them to deactivate parts of home theater systems - such as a DVR or Slingbox, for example - depending on what program you're watching, the DRM rights assigned to it and whether said device has an analog or otherwise insecure output, effectively giving content owners the ability to control how people consume multimedia by remotely controlling the appliances and devices themselves.

Industry vs. the consumer

It might seem unfair to compare the two. After all, CASBAA is simply trying to protect the business interests of its members - which is legitimate - while the MPAA is proposing a service that allows it to directly interfere with consumer viewing habits in a decidedly invasive manner. But both examples reflect the philosophy in the TV business that viewers have no say-so in the business model, and will - or at least should - accept whatever conditions and limitations the industry imposes on them.

Which may be assuming a lot in an age where the web has become a strikingly flexible platform for someone to come along with a workaround that empowers users with more freedom. And that matters because making video services less convenient to use could result in churn and, worse, more file-sharing.

Or maybe not. But it's ironic that just as the telecom industry is learning to become more attuned and responsive to user needs, it's also - via IPTV, mobile TV and other video services - getting into a business sector that still does the opposite.

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