FCC About To Force A Quantum Leap In Advertising's Evolution... Unintentionally

A recent USA Today piece notes that the Federal Communications Commission may soon force cable and wireless networks to unbundle their service offerings from device sales. If this happens, may I be the first to say: thank you, FCC! Despite the oft-discussed demise of television, Americans still spend a significant portion of their lives in front of the TV. Given the importance of television and its content in everyday lives, the lack of large-scale innovation with in the way we watch and/or interact with television has been more than a little frustrating.

We all like to talk about the end of broadcasting and the beginning of media in our time, but talking has been all that's happened. Think about it; since the introduction of TiVo, when the broadcast model was supposed to end the first time, what really happened? The lack of innovation in the cable box user interface has probably been the leading reason why television viewing habits have not dramatically shifted in line with monumental advances in technology.



I recently received a brand new Motorola cable box provided by my Time Warner Cable provider; not surprisingly, the user interface is horrific. The graphics and layout are anything but intuitive. The quality of the graphics themselves suggests that Motorola contracted out the design in the early 90s. The ability to search wouldn't even measure up to online search's ability pre-Google, and can't even be called search by today's standards. The box's reaction time to commands is ludicrously slow. The typical scroll-through listings by channel and time function is getting more impossible to use as the number of channels increase. The banner-like ads on the bottom of each page that I am forced to scroll though are insulting. And forget system personalization. But none of this matters because I don't have a choice. I don't blame Motorola. Why spend the money when you're not competing for users?

If people are abandoning television for user-generated videos of their buddies falling off a roof into a pool of Diet Coke and Mentos, and if IPTV. ever makes any sort of significant inroads, the cable companies are at least in part to blame for stifling innovation in the way viewers interact with television. To date, innovations have been focused on trying, horribly unsuccessfully, to invent new ways to make money first. But making people's lives better must be part of the longer-term strategy.

Even though it may not seem like it, the FCC's forcing the cable companies to open up will be the best thing that ever happened to them -- or they will become a commodity, I guess that depends on them. Why will this be a good thing? Because I can't for the life of me figure out how you can build a new advertising model around a system without knowing how people are going to adapt the system into their everyday life. You can't establish a new contract with viewers if they don't know what they are getting in exchange for their attention in new media paradigms. My guess is that the cable model of assigning and organizing content by channels will be gone no more than two years after the cable companies are forced to open up.

Some time ago Comcast CEO Brian Roberts stated that Comcast wanted to be the Google of television., John Battelle pointed out that the company had a long way to go then, and not much has changed. But if cable box device and software development is opened up to the free market, I think we will see the type of innovations we have been waiting for in short order.

Why so quickly? Because the technology is already there. It's innovation in the usability of the technology that needs to happen. Give hundreds of startups plus Google, Apple, et al, a crack at redesigning the way people interact with television and you will see Motorola and Scientific Atlantic jump. Once the usability is where it should be, there will be a sea change in the way people consume media through television. As we observe this sea change, advertisers will have to react quickly to work with whoever stumbles across what will become the default way hundreds of millions of people interact with media through the medium of television.

All this is very exciting and in the best interest of everyone involved, however painful. The question is, will the FCC pull the trigger and make all of our lives better -- or at least (if you work in advertising or media) more interesting?

What are your thoughts on where this is headed? Its implications?

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