Hard News by Russell Brown


The Future of the Future

Some excellent resources are appearing in celebration of this week's 50th anniversary of television in New Zealand – the brilliant NZ On Screen collection, Prime TV's 50 Years of Television documentary on June 13 and tonight's Cheers to 50 Years show on TV One.

We've decided to do something different on Media7 this week. We're looking forward – not back – to the future of television. And we have an hour to do it.

The programme will feature discussions with former Mediaworks CEO Brent Impey, Ian Taylor of Virtual Spectator and Taylormade, TVNZ's new media content chief Tom Cotter, Jim Black of Triangle/Stratos, Nigel McCulloch of the Downlow Concept, Freeview boss Sam Irvine and the well groovy Helen Baxter of Mohawk Media and The G33k Show.

As a special treat, Jose Barbosa will actually report from the future, where things are the same but different.

And as an extra special treat, we'll have a couple of Samsung 3D sets and accompanying glasses so our studio audience can make their judgement on the apparent next wave of home media technology.

If you'd like to join us in the audience for tomorrow's recording, we'll need you at TVNZ from about 5pm and have you away by 7pm. Click Reply and email me for details.

I'm also interested in your thoughts about the future of television. Will it exist in any recognisable form in 20 or 50 years? Will advertising-supported free-to-air TV survive? Google TV or Apple TV? Given the experience in Britain, where most of TV is a wasteland of porn, preachers and peddlers, is there really enough content to fill a massively multi-channel environment?

My personal guess is that we're headed for a hi-res/low-res future – where we will watch both massive HD/3D productions (possibly delivered direct to international viewers by their producers) and people shouting at webcams.

That's actually pretty much what my arguably atypical children watch already. Almost no broadcast TV: just Avatar and That Guy With the Glasses.

I also wonder if we tend to underrate the smaller changes while we watch global media companies assemble to give 3D the big push. I think no innovation has changed the business of television as much as the popularisation of the remote control.

The first TV remote, Zenith Corporation's Lazy Bones, was introduced in the US in 1950, the year colour debuted. But they were rare here until 1973, when they arrived in numbers as we got colour.

(Trivia fans may care to note that, thanks to the impetus of the 1974 Commonwealth Games, New Zealand went colour two years before Australia. I still remember seeing one at the Cantebury A&P show, then the wonder when a boxy Thorn set arrived in our lounge.)

Even its early, wired form, the remote allowed us to something special: we could interact with our televisions without touching them. When a choice became available in 1974, with the launch of South Pacific Television, we could not only choose channels – we could choose to tune out. In particular, we assumed the power to ignore advertising by muting it -- and, more recently, pausing and fast-forwarding through programmes on the PVR. And the media industry is still working through the implications of that.

The next big power shift came with the mainstream arrival of the videocassette recorder in the late 70s. If you were born from the mid-70s, you have had the power to copy and repeat television as desired. We take it for granted now, but in testimony to Congress in the early1980s, Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti lamented the "savagery and the ravages of this machine" and compared the VCR to the Boston Strangler.

The challenges pile up now. Many of you will have a kind aunt able to send you interesting programmes from overseas on VHS ; and via Justin.tv and its relatives, it's possible to watch dozens of foreign channels, streamed live to the internet by individuals in the country of origin.

My other guess is that genuine public broadcasting will become extremely important, because it will be the only reliable way of providing free-to-air television. As TV merges ever more with the internet, it will be entering a realm where advertising inventory will forever outstrip the demand from advertisers. Advertising will continue to deliver revenue – just not in the big, juicy chunks that TV has been treating as a birthright for decades.

That will inevitably mean FTA TV will have to be made more cheaply. The democratisation of TV production technology is already helping on that score – but how much will it help, really? These will be interesting times for television.

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