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Weekly Column

There's No Show Like an Old Show: Reinventing Television Might Mean Looking Back Rather Than Forward

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

I just realized that what I've been writing about the last couple of weeks is really the future of television. And given where I work -- a national broadcast television network -- this is both an important and a sensitive subject. After all, we've been pretty much doing exactly the same thing here at PBS since 1969. Only now, the pressures of technology and economy are threatening to squeeze our Mister Rogers-based reality into something very different. Fortunately, I think it can be something of which my friend Fred Rogers would have been proud.

Our building blocks for the future of television are intellectual property, technology, network access and money. Too often in columns like this, we look at one part or maybe two, but unless you think about all four parts at the same time, it won't work.

Ted Turner became a billionaire by stealing intellectual property rights. He'd buy re-run rights for Gilligan's Island in the Atlanta TV market, then throw his WTBS signal up on a satellite where it could be viewed over cable systems all over America. The contract didn't specifically say he couldn't do this, but that was just because the program sellers hadn't thought of it. They didn't see the value, just as CBS saw no value in re-run rights for "I Love Lucy," leaving them in the hands of Desi Arnaz. Turner also realized the value of re-runs, not just of TV shows but also movies. He bought the MGM movie studio primarily for its library of old films, realizing long before most of the rest of us that there was gold in that dusty celluloid.

These are oft-told stories of Turner and Arnaz, but now let's place the ideas in a more modern and relevant context -- Some of the most popular pages on this web site are for shows that PBS no longer even has the right to air. My own "Triumph of the Nerds" is in that category. Though PBS no longer shows the documentary, thousands of people from all over the world still visit its mangy old web site. They find the site useful, even if it isn't the show, itself. And I find it fascinating that there is this audience for material that -- like Lucy re-runs -- was never thought to have enduring value.

There is an audience, however small, for just about every show ever made. What we need to do is to find a way to make the cost of keeping those shows available less than the benefit derived from people seeing them. And that brings us to the economics of Blockbuster Video.

Blockbuster, or any video rental store, works on the same business model. The cost of keeping a movie on the rental shelf is $10 per week for the first 3 to 4 weeks, then $0.50 per week thereafter. Most customers rent new releases, but those are no longer new after the first month. At that point, extra copies are sold off and a few archival copies remain to serve the few renters per week who are looking for them. The new release and archival rental businesses are very different, but they complement each other. In television, though, we aren't nearly as efficient. PBS typically buys the right to air shows for five years, which ought to support both the new release and archival models, but most shows are played a lot at first and then hardly at all for the rest of the time. That's because the broadcast distribution network isn't efficient for small audiences.

Enter the Internet. Six years ago in this space, I wrote a column saying it would be at least six years before the Internet would be a viable medium for the distribution of video. I was correct. What I wasn't thinking of back then were the dual personalities of this business, and how the Internet could be an ideal medium for serving small audiences for materials that have long been paid for. For this kind of archival video serving to succeed, most of the work still to be done is administrative. We need a way of rewarding the content creators when someone enjoys their work. It's really just an accounting system, but of course, all parties have to agree on the rules.

Deciding what to watch wouldn't change very much. There would still be a main broadcast or cable channel. But there would also be a second channel -- a myPBS -- that would be unique to every viewer. Choose a show from any of the 10,000 or so that have reached archival status in your local station's library and download it into your DVR. Ftp, http, broadcast, unicast, multicast, BitTorrent -- I'm not sure the networking technology makes much difference except that I'd try to use them all for reasons I'll explain shortly.

The money to pay for all this would come from subscription fees. How much would you pay for unlimited access to 10,000 shows, most of which are otherwise unavailable? Have you tried to find a copy of my "Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet?" Short of finding an old VHS tape on eBay, it can't be bought. Now multiply that experience by at least 1,000X and you can see why such a subscription would be attractive. Yeah, but what would you pay? Ten bucks a month? Ten bucks a month would not only pay for the system, it would effectively double the funds available for new productions.

What I am describing is a whole new kind of television because it offers content that is literally unavailable otherwise. Sure, it might hurt sales of Dragon Tales DVDs, but those producers could opt out of the system if they preferred. If it scares ShopPBS, then let ShopPBS run it and share in the success.

This kind of television would of course have an impact on all the other kinds of TV, but I can only imagine it improving the landscape, raising the level or discourse and forcing other stations and other media to raise their games.

Maybe you noticed that I described the video library as being at your local station. That's not only because local affiliates are the muscles of a TV network, but because they are logistically vital to the success of a digital distribution network. For all the dark fiber in the world, we don't really want to be sending huge video files across countries and oceans if we don't have to, which is why a local video server makes good sense.

A local video server also promises to shake-up local Internet service, which would be a good thing. Now we're down to the network access part of this analysis. Even the biggest PBS station in the biggest market rarely has more than half a million viewers at any time, so let's imagine that the maximum demand for local archival video is a tenth of that, or 50,000 simultaneous viewers at best in a city like New York. That's a lot of bandwidth -- far more than any station could afford to buy.

If they can't buy the required bandwidth, maybe they could build it.

These are, after all, broadcasters complete with engineers and huge transmitter towers. What's to keep the local PBS station from becoming a WiMax digital video supplier?

WiMax means IEEE 802.16 wireless data services that are supposed to start reaching the market later this year. WiMax (I've written about it before) has the promise of becoming a super-WiFi, even stealing some of the wired broadband business. But at least in the U.S., the most productive frequencies for WiMax are presently controlled by just two players -- Sprint and Nextel. And those two are trying to merge.

If all these prime WiMax frequencies become owned by a single company, WiMax just might not happen as currently expected because Sprintel or Nexint might decide that more money could be made by NOT using those frequencies, especially since Sprint has spent billions on a 3G wireless phone network with similar (though thinner) capabilities.

Even with Intel strongly behind it, WiMax needs help to reach its full potential.

Fortunately, the MMDS (an earlier fixed-wireless system that failed for technical reasons) frequencies aren't owned entirely by Sprint and Nextel. At least some of that bandwidth is designated as Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) frequencies, which were later aggregated into MMDS. These ITFS frequencies are generally owned by school systems, state departments of education -- just the kind of organizations that often are involved with PBS stations, too.

Imagine every PBS affiliate as a WiMax broadcaster, pumping 45 megabits-per-second or more of archival material into its local service area and another 45 megabits through a regular Internet connection. All the local users are truly local and some or all of them are running Bit Torrent, which would effectively double again the effective bandwidth. The effect would be stunning. Never again could you say that there was nothing worth watching on TV.

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