Tablets, Tablets Everywhere

Barely a day goes by when there isn’t some news about electronic tablets.  In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen: the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Fire; speculation about a next-generation iPad; rumors about the demise of RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook; a patent dispute between Apple and Samsung over Samsung’s Galaxy Tab; a fire sale for the HP TouchPad; and scores of announcements regarding app deals.  And of course the death of Steve Jobs was a reminder that the creation of the whole tablet category was Jobs’ last great triumph.

Tablets threaten to supplant a number of technologies, such as notebooks, music players and DVDs, while providing new platforms for newspapers, magazines and books.  But what about over-the-air video?  Tablets offer a new outlet for movies and the product previously known as “television.”  Is this a good thing for the TV industry?

A year ago, I’d have scoffed at the idea that tablets would have any impact at all on television but now I’m not so sure.  Back then the iPad was an expensive toy for early adapters and technology geeks, and video was hardly its most important attraction.  But with prices dropping and new devices coming on the market, tablets have penetrated into the consumer mainstream and video has become a central functionality.



Of course we are still at the very nascent stages of tablet development.  Only 5% to 8% of households even have a tablet today, and total video use is tiny.  To understand the relative impact, look at Nielsen’s Cross Platform Report.  According to Nielsen, every week the average American watches 35 ½ hours of traditional television, 33 minutes of Internet video, and just 7 minutes of mobile video.  And even within that tiny bit of mobile viewing, most of it is on smartphones, not on tablets.

Still, because of the way that people watch television, I think the tablet is more likely than the computer to challenge traditional television over the long term.   TV is the ultimate lean-back experience.  You watch while sitting in a comfortable chair or lying on a couch.  By contrast, the computer is a lean-forward activity, where you watch at a desk or table.  It’s not relaxing.  A tablet is someplace in between.  Because it’s so mobile ,you can watch it anywhere -- in a comfortable chair, on the couch or in bed. 

In other words, the tablet could theoretically become another television screen.  Instead of getting a second or third TV and set-top box, a family could buy a tablet and move it between the kids room and kitchen, bring it on a trip, or watch it while killing time outside the home.  We could be approaching the coach potato’s Nirvana: all TV, all the time. 

The question is how long it might take for tablets to have a real impact on total TV viewing.  A lot might depend on tablet sales during this year’s Christmas season and how quickly consumers can adopt the tablet habit once they are owners.

The real hang-up is content.  Until recently, there just hasn’t been that much real television programming to watch on a tablet, but that may soon no longer be the case.  To that end, the WatchESPN app has the potential to be a game-changer.  Through this app, eligible cable subscribers can log in to watch live ESPN programming from all its brand channels, including the flagship ESPN channel.  There is an important segment of the population for whom sports is the prime reason for watching television, and if this group can be trained to watch sports on a tablet, the industry could begin to see serious mobile viewing.

ESPN is not the only network to have programming for tablets.  Most of the major networks offer apps for episodes of some shows, especially Turner, which has been a leader in entertainment and news.  TBS has a very aggressive, very funny ad campaign for its own TV Everywhere app, while CNN is offering live streaming for authenticated users.  Then, too, the MSOs are beginning to roll out apps that allow subscribers to stream programming at home.

ESPN and Turner probably don’t expect to make a profit on their apps for some time, but as two of the most forward-looking networks, they seems to be trying to get ahead of the curve on all screens, even if there is no immediate return.   They also set up a test case on competing business models, since ESPN sells separate ads for its streaming service and Turner’s app has the same ads that are shown on regular television.

Whether a critical mass of networks will follow suit might depend on Nielsen.  The lack of regular TV ratings for Internet viewing was the reason many networks gave for not offering television programming online -- at least until Nielsen launched its Extended Screen program.  We hear similar murmurings now. Content providers don’t want to make too much programming available on tablets until they know it can be measured in the ratings.

Nielsen says it can move relatively quickly to introduce tablet-based ratings.  It needs to finalize its technological solution for measuring the closed-system Apple iOS devices, achieve an industry consensus on how to count the viewing, and figure out internally how to report the data.  Still, if Nielsen were to provide a measurement solution for tablet viewing, it could open the floodgates for more mobile apps, which could, in turn, give more viewers a reason to finally break down and buy that device.  Maybe the day is really coming when there will be a tablet in every briefcase, pocketbook and backpack.



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