Someone Please, Please Whelm Me

Let’s just say the future of TV is pretty well established by now. The news that HBO is untethering itself from exclusive cable distribution and CBS will offer a paid-streaming service for its broadcast offerings more or less cinches a future that some of us have been blathering about for a decade.

“Meet George Jetson, circa 2020,” predicted one heroic visionary back in 2005.He doesn't have a personal hovercraft or a food computer, but the rest of the future is more futuristic than he thought…. Over-the-air network TV is gone, along with program schedules, affiliate stations and hotel demand in Cannes in the third week of June. George, Jane, Judy and Elroy get their entertainment, and their news, any way they wish: TV, phone, camera, laptop, game console, MP3 player. They get to choose from what the Hollywood big boys have funded and distributed, or what the greater vlogosphere has percolated to their attention.”

That over-the-top future, which has since already largely materialized, is devoid of broadcast networks and cable juggernauts, but very rich in streaming content from Hollywood fare to Jenna Marbles to Jeffrey Hayzlett’s C-Suite TV bizcasts to Morgan Spurlock’s offerings on the Smartish channel to Funny or to everything else you can think of, plus millions of things you can’t think of but somebody else will. 

The content side of this burgeoning ecosystem we covered not long ago in part one, part two, part three and part four of our Beyond Your Wildest Streams series. Except to say that the scale and ubiquity are probably hard to even conceive in quaint 2014, there’s little point in speculating what the variety will encompass and what especially will take hold. It will be a lot. A lot lot. And it will be unbelievably cool. In fact, it could be overwhelming.

And that’s why the conversation this week -- all the oohing and aahing about developments that were inevitable -- is misplaced.  The big question for the future (really, the only question for the future) is who will make it all whelming.

What hardware and app will offer the one thing networks and cable do that remains relevant: the organization, curation and delivery of the stuff we want to see? True, the Old Guard enjoys the benefit of relatively limited inventory; that makes curatorial process pretty simple. But even in a universe of nearly infinite content options, one-stop shopping is the Holy Grail.

It has to have a simple interface, a Netflix-like recommendation algorithm, instant retrieval, personal customization and compatibility with every smartphone, tablet, TV, online distribution platform, router -- every link in the chain from broadband to the screen.

Is all. Just those things. Somebody please hurry.

Mind you, the various functions are all out there. There’s the Chromecast dongle and its Mozilla competitor, Matchstick; YouTube’s mega-reach and right-rail recommendation engine; Waywire’s highly searchable online content bazaar (approximately comparable to PlutoTV, Frequency and the abysmally named Yidio); the intuitive interfaces of Amazon Fire TV, Sony PlayStation TV, Apple TV and Roku. Plus the broadcast-content-tilted but highly trafficked Hulu. 

Yes -- in various ways they get the job done, and among them they are already toppling the teetering structures of broadcast and cable. But it’s all so fragmented and incremental. Thirty years ago, the world couldn’t even support two videocassette formats. This all-roads-lead-to-Rome moment, in the name of organizing our endless options, is itself a confusing mess.

Kind of reminds me of religion. Some people are Methodists and it works for them. Some are Muslims. Some are Jews. Catholics. Buddhists. Pentecostals. Sikhs. Hindus. Druids. Mormons, Scientologists. I suppose they all arguably get the job done….but how does the world look? #Clusterfuck.

We can’t have a One True Religion, but in due course perhaps we shall have one true streaming dashboard, co-curated by personal selections, a collaborative-filtering algorithm, global consensus (Rotten Tomatoes) and social-graph consensus. Maybe it will be Windows of video, dominated by whoever claws his way out of the scrum with the ball. Maybe it will be various flavors of an industry standard, evolving from collaborations and consumer demand -- i.e., consortium, not cartel.

But let the shakeout begin. I’m still paying those drooling hyenas at Verizon, and I want to stop. But I need someone to tell me, simply and definitively and requiring no more than simple wrist action, what the hell to watch.   

1 comment about "Someone Please, Please Whelm Me".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 21, 2014 at 4:17 p.m.

    There's no doubt it was a slow fuse that the heroic visionary noticed. But we're at the point now where no one should stand too close.

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