THE FUTURE of television is here. At least, its prototype is. Today we use our mobile phones for more than just communicating. We use them to take pictures, play games, share music, and download news and celebrity gossip. More and more, we turn to our phones to kill time when stuck in traffic, while waiting in line, or in the presence of boring company. Nokia, the global leader in wireless telecommunications, has spotted the trend. “Be entertained anywhere” is its new tagline, a radical departure from its roots as a mobile-handset manufacturer.
Communication is out and entertainment is in. The buzz in the industry these days is all about Mobile TV.
By 2015, mobile devices, much like cell phones and personal digital assistants, will take the place of our television sets. This will happen because advances in digital technology will continue bring down the cost of pushing content such as movies and television programs into the hands — literally — of consumers.
When I take a look at my I-Pod, I see the future staring back at me. Of course, tomorrow’s device will have larger high-resolution color screens, a Wi-Fi antenna, built-in speakers, and enough storage space to fit a week’s worth of programs. This is hardly science fiction. Gadgets like these could find themselves on the shelves before the end of the decade.
What makes all this possible is the increasing efficiency of digital compression technology that allows rich media like video to be broken down into ever smaller bits of information, which can then be downloaded to faster and smaller storage devices. Forget dialup access and think high bandwidth connections and you get a clearer picture of how all this content is going to find itself into your mobile entertainment center. Say goodbye to single-use gizmos like digital diaries, cameras, MP3 players, and mobile phones that eat up scarce real estate in your bag. Tomorrow’s gadget will centralize all communication and entertainment functions in one portable device. These mobile television sets will allow you to view more than just what’s on air at any given time; you’ll also be able to download videos, documents, pictures, music — anything that can be digitized and stored in a hard disk anywhere in the world.
In the mood for a movie? Just Google it. You can search any database on the planet — from Filipino film classics to documentaries about the Fiji islands. Any piece of entertainment out there is yours to access for free or a fee. Net Heads are already doing this with music and low-resolution video files, but imagine DVD-quality programs streaming via wireless connection to your screens or downloaded to your disk while you were in the shower. Again, this is hardly science fiction. It’s happening.
Surely there are practical limitations. Unless we humans develop microscopic eyesight and telescopic hearing (like eagles), watching your favorite sitcom on a five-inch flat screen is just about as entertaining as in-flight viewing in economy class-without the headphones, that is. Acceptable maybe, but hardly enjoyable. Which is why the mobile entertainment center of the future will also be dockable, just like most I-Pod and MP3 players already are. Using a digital cable to connect the device with existing home entertainment systems and giant LCD screens, you can pump up the volume and get larger-than-life images that simulate the theatrical experience. Sedentary consumers who have no use for mobile entertainment may opt for computer set-top boxes hooked up to digital screens and never have to worry about battery life or storage space running out.
OF COURSE, whether this technology will actually take off will boil down to cost. And cost, naturally, will depend largely on consumer demand. Early adopters may not mind paying a premium for new and still untested technology like mobile TV, but will Juan de la Cruz be able to afford tomorrow’s version of today’s P10,000-21-inch color TV set? Just like cellular phone handsets, a comfortable price-point can be reached, but only if the dropping cost of production intersects with rising consumer demand for applications and experiences they simply cannot do without. Put another way, will the information, news and entertainment — the content flowing through the digital networks — be compelling enough to abandon cheap analog television sets carrying free VHF channels? This will all depend on how successful digital television can transform the passive viewing habits of today into a more compelling, more enjoyable, more liberating, and above all, more interactive audio and visual experience tomorrow.
The answer lies in our current generation of kids, teenagers, and the early twenty-somethings as well. Let’s call them the screenagers — those kids that grew up in front of television, computer, and arcade screens. By 2015, they, and those after them, will make up the bulk of the consumer market. Right now, they are the quickest to adapt to new technology and spend the most on personal entertainment. If the interactive television technology of the next decade sounds a bit too daunting for people born before the 1970s, for screenagers, streaming video and interactive entertainment are already part of the daily routine.
Screenagers burn money, time, and energy downloading music, texting, chatting, and gaming online, with most of these experiences taking place on the screens of their computer and mobile communication devices. Tomorrow’s television set is only a more evolved form of the often-clumsy technology they make do with today. Digital video recorders like TiVo are a taste of things to come, but next-generation TV will offer even more choices, more control, and faster access than anything we’ve seen today.
Analog TV won’t disappear. It just won’t be as popular with the new generation of viewers who want to control what they watch, when they watch, and where they watch. Only digitally compressed media stored away in mega servers or streaming live over the network can give the next generation audiences this kind of freedom and control.
In 10 years or less, you and I will not only be able to choose from hundreds of thousands of titles we can call up from the network, but we will also be able to download it on a local device for future viewing and instant replay. Search engines just like Google will give us access to all sorts of content — from Hollywood blockbusters to high-resolution home videos. And that’s the easy part. It really gets exciting when you begin to imagine the boom in programs ushered in by simpler and more affordable digital production tools and the boundless network space available for content.
Big-budget productions with their huge publicity machines will continue to have greater mindshare in the network, but what’s to stop independent filmmakers and celebrity wannabe’s from streaming their movies to the curious and just plain voyeuristic? In fact, tomorrow’s television will have the option of built-in digital cameras for person-to-person broadcast or — who knows? Our very own reality TV specials? We’ll still get the news, but at anytime we want it, and with links to sources for deeper analysis, related blog sites, and news-oriented chat rooms. Anyone hooked up to the network can even play news correspondent and file live reports.
THE POSSIBILITIES are endless, but the end of mass programming is inevitable. When viewers take control of when and what they watch, television programming becomes more personalized, customized, and participatory. Broadcast networks like ABS-CBN and GMA-7 won’t have to go the way of analog television; as content companies first and foremost, their programs and products will adapt easily to the new multiple platforms created by digital compression and delivery.
Networks and telecommunications companies will form content and distribution conglomerates just like Time/Warner AOL in the United States already has. These alliances make sure they can still control, or at least influence, and ultimately, profit from what viewers in their territories are watching or downloading. The only problem is, territoriality becomes problematic when anyone can access anything anywhere. New business models and National Telecommunications Commission regulations will determine how Philippine media conglomerates survive the chaotic new media environment. They will have to compete not just among themselves, but increasingly with global media and telco players eager for a piece of the action.
Analog, sometimes called free television, remains profitable because it delivers a mass audience to advertisers. Digital television changes all that. Once content is downloaded, viewers will be able to skip through commercials, rendering the 30-second spot — the bread and butter of networks and ad agencies alike — inefficient.
Ironically, commercial-free television penalizes the viewer as well. Without advertising revenue to recover the overhead of producers and networks, the burden shifts to the audience through higher subscription fees and pay-per-view rates that threaten to bring down viewership levels and could kill the technology altogether. Advertising agencies and producers will need to introduce innovative forms of promotions such as product placements, program and product co-branding, the five-second spot, commercial crawls, and advertainments (advertorials with high entertainment value) to grab attention in an extremely crowded air space.
Because the stakes have never been this high for industry players, serious discussion on the future of television is already taking place. Broadcast networks, film studios, advertising agencies, telecommunication companies, and financial institutions are all preparing themselves for the radical shifts in the lucrative media environment, but few are talking about the equally radical transformations that will happen to media saturated societies like ours.
HERE’S A sneak peek of things to come: Institutions will be transformed. Not immediately, but eventually. For one, the idea of the nation as we know it will begin to erode. As more viewers turn to customized entertainment and personalized news, the more they will retreat from the larger public life and national discussion. Instead, they will turn to virtual communities of like-minded individuals inhabiting the global digital network. People will gravitate toward the networks or media spaces that share and reinforce their political beliefs and social biases just as conservatives in the United States have turned to FOX News and Arabs to Al Jazeera TV to validate their views of the world.
If mass media were largely responsible for imagining our current nation-states, niche media, narrowcasted to tightly defined networks, will create alternative virtual and temporal communities based on closely shared worldviews and lifestyles. But it does so at the expense of fragmenting the larger body politic and social organization. “To each his own bubble,” the social philosopher Jean Baudrillard once predicted. The more we retreat into spheres of familiarity, the more our world shrinks to a point where it resembles a bubble or echo chamber where the only voice we hear is that of our own and the only view we see is that immediately around us.
Those who lament a deeply divided Philippine nation can expect the cracks to widen as the segmentation of the news market into exclusive networks for the masa and the elite, the Muslims and the Christians, even the young and the old, continue.
Like society, the family will also be under assault. The convenience and privacy of mobile viewing and video-on-demand will kill the daily ritual of living room TV viewing — one of the last remaining traditions of our already atomized families. There will be fewer opportunities for families to interact about the news or express feelings about commonly loved programs. Conversations will lack shared symbolic meaning and identities will be fleeting.
Like the disjointed society around them, generational divisions within the family will be intensified by new loyalties and identities with peers across the network. The family unit will remain as they have for millennia, but they will expand to include new members brought in from alliances formed on the digital network.
Political life, fragmented by increasingly narrow publics, will be mediated absolutely by television. Instantaneous polling and voting on policy and candidates will seem empowering on the surface, but the digital feedback loops will threaten to commodify politics and turn viewers into consumers who tune in and out when they wish or pick and choose who and what they prefer to listen to. Image and simulation will overcome substance and all political life may just as well resemble show business.
FOR THOSE who hold on tightly to the traditions of the present, the future indeed looks scary. But every generation experiences disruption; this is ours, and we can embrace it in order to manage it. For all the pessimism about the social effects of the mobile phone, we must admit that living is more convenient and communication more fun because of it. The fundamental shifts in social relations will be felt over a long period of time. For most of us, the short-term effects will be exhilarating and liberating. Everyone becomes a producer of his or her own life show. Celebrity will be democratized. We’ll have more than our 15 minutes of fame. Maybe we’ll even have 15 months-so long as there are subscribers.
The big studios and broadcasters will still dominate, but they will lose their monopoly over who and what makes it to our screens. Naturally, though, when programming is opened up to everyone, it becomes difficult to stop perverts, terrorists, and criminals from getting on the air. That’s why freedom will not be absolute. Regulating agencies and network police will try to control the entry and movement of content within the network. Privacy will be an international debate as viewers, or more appropriately, netizens, clash with network administrators over disclosure of personal information that can be abused for surveillance, profiling, and direct-marketing purposes.
Piracy will also be a hot-button issue. If content can be passed from disk to disk, why pay for it? Like privacy, piracy and consumer rights will dominate the global discussion in the upcoming years. Copyright protection technology will be more sophisticated by then, but a consumer rebellion will erupt over the high cost of content and a nostalgia for the good old days of free broadcast will linger.
This brings us to the central debate surrounding the future of TV: access. How much will it cost to watch? If networks charge subscription fees like the utility companies do, then the cost of information and entertainment will depend on hours consumed or types of programs viewed. A flop may cost cheaper than a hit, and rates for a full season will be less than buying a la carte. The business model of television’s future will depend on market factors and global and local regulatory regimes. But with so much of our cultural, political, and economic activity migrating to the network, can we really afford not to subscribe? Will all life be a paid-for experience? Analog TV offers far less value, but at least we tuned in for free.
The future of TV promises greater freedom and choice, but it also raises new questions over ownership and control. Governments, politicians, social activists, and the screenagers of today have a few years still to figure it out.
David Celdran is director of current affairs and television production of the ABS-CBN News Channel. A member of the board of the PCIJ, he writes frequently on media and popular culture.