The next major wave of changes is rushing to your TV this fall: new-generation set-top boxes that bridge the gap between television and the Internet. Some observers think this may be the next great leap forward for the TV couch potato, rivaling the introduction of color TV, the remote, and cable.
These are new generations of devices that connect your TV set to some form of external signal, going well beyond the current generation of cable boxes. They're coming from competitors with enormous marketing clout like Apple and Google, and lesser known but respected names such as Roku and Boxee. Whatever the source, all these boxes are bringing a wealth of on-demand video and other content to your TV, including movies, TV episodes, audio programs, and original content previously available only on the Internet.
The introduction of these devices is picking up speed. Apple's Apple TV and the Roku set top boxes, both second-generation systems, started shipping over the last several days. And today (Oct. 6), Google unveiled its Google TV box, the Logitech Revue, at a press conference in New York. Boxee is scheduled for its first public showing in November.
The phrase “on demand” is key to understanding the why of these devices: You watch a show when and where you want, not when someone else schedules it for viewing. And that's the good part.
The bad part is that consumers will be barraged by conflicting messages about what they need to buy to avoid missing out on this content explosion. Should you buy a new set-top box with pre-packaged on-demand services and an innovative technological wrinkle? Or will the content services, not the box they play on, be most important? Will the marketers of new high-definition TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, and any number of mobile devices convince you to buy their products, which already give you access to many of the services promoted by the set-top box crowd?
And given the cost of all this — the devices, monthly subscription charges, a la carte picks — is it worth the headache of hooking up a PC or Mac notebook or desktop computer to your TV?
Confusing? You bet. It's almost enough to make you give up and stick with cable TV — or give it all up for a good book.
But if you want to enter the world of almost limitless content on your living room TV, you'll have to do some homework. An Internet-savvy public has shown a real appetite for more and different choices, however, and for less expensive alternatives than tiered levels of cable programming or premium channels like HBO and Showtime. Cutting the cord to cable is becoming a real alternative in many homes, especially in this economy. There are hundreds of free TV shows, movies and other programming available on the Internet, and specialized search engines like Clicker to help you to look for them.
The poster child for this new programming wave is Netflix, the company that delivers DVDs of movies and TV shows to homes via U.S. mail, but has seen its on-demand streaming services become a huge factor in this new movement. Netflix service is ubiquituous, built into virtually every new TV, Blu-Ray player, game console, and mobile phone, and also accessible from any computer — over 100 devices, according to the New York Times. Earlier this year, Netflix made a billion-dollar deal with movie studios including Paramount, MGM, and Lions Gate for streaming access to their film libraries. In late September, the giant Blockbuster DVD video rental chain filed for bankruptcy protection, in no small measure due to competition from Netflix and kiosk DVD dispenser Redbox.
Also in late September, Netflix stunned the TV industry by announcing that NBC Universal agreed to make several top NBC TV shows available for Netflix's streaming service, a head-on challenge to Apple's race for domination in the on-demand network programming market. The second-generation Apple TV set-top box was positioned as a game-changer — not so much for its technology but for its promise of renting TV episodes at the same low 99 cent price as Apple charges for most songs and iPhone/iTouch apps. That high-volume, low cost price point is credited for changing the economics of both the music industry and app developers. Apple is considered the dominant force in digital music downloads; Reuters recently cited a Billboard report, noting that Apple's iTunes store had over 25 percent of the U.S. market.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!