I have spent the last two days in the world of cable television at the CTAM Summit in New Orleans. And even though I was asked to lead two discussions, I have to admit I am lost. As an "Internet guy," I am very used to standards and iteration being the oxygen that keeps businesses alive. On the Web, businesses that do not innovate quickly die, regardless of their size. Constant improvements of user interfaces are the norm, not the exception.
However, if you have watched television over the past 10 years, you know that this does not hold true for your TV experience. I had a lot of preconceived notions on the lack of innovation, and while I found some accurate, what really struck me is, the lack of innovation is not for lack of want. Most of the conversations at CTAM are about what television "could be" or "should be,"and yet there is a lot of skepticism about how it is all going to happen.
One of the main choking points for the industry is actually the hardware, meaning set-top boxes and the remote control. It is nearly impossible, as we have seen, to drastically improve the TV experience when the technology infrastructure in place simply won't allow this. Some conversations here at CTAM are about set-top boxes that are over 10 years old and still in market.
Think about that for a second. We change our phones yearly, or computers every two or three years, but the device with which most people spend the most time with media might be a DECADE old. An easy example of how hardware is holding back innovation is the lack of a keyboard. Think about the last time you tried to type a word into your cable box. Most likely you were given a cursor and used the arrows on your remote control to move to each letter. How is content supposed to become interactive with this hurdle for usage? How can there be a consistently better user experience? And, maybe most importantly for this audience, how can marketers better engage consumers without rapid innovation?
There are some huge financial challenges to getting every consumer a new set-top box, and even if everyone had a brand new model, the standards across various providers are weak at best. The real answer, in my humble opinion, is to make set-top boxes totally irrelevant.
I am more than happy to pay my cable bill for access to all of the wonderful content, but cable companies need to very quickly start improving my content consumption experience. And the only way consumers will see rapid improvement in their television interfaces is if cable companies can iterate quickly, much more like today'sWweb companies. This would mean moving away from having the software on the physical (usually outdated) box in people's home dictating the user interface, and instead allowing cable companies to test and learn very quickly on a Web-like client/server system.
The cable companies have the advantage and opportunity right now to deliver a better consumer experience and to define their role as people's preferred choice for content consumption, as well as redefine how advertising fits within the world's largest medium. But in order to seize the opportunity, cable companies are going to need to start thinking about how they can change faster -- and provide the most positive consumer experience possible.