The PVR (in Britain mainly the Sky Plus box, though there are Freeview PVRs and cable company Telewest is launching its own version) means people can time-shift programmes and skip the ads when they replay them – not all the ads, because people rather like some TV commercials, but quite a few. We know they’re doing it, but we don’t know how much they’re doing it, and this Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” introduces a crucial element of uncertainty into advertisers’ calculations. While it is not commercially significant yet, with penetration of Sky Plus boxes now approaching 500,000, but it may be soon.
As well as acting like hi-tech video recorders, PVRs have a very primitive searching ability which is already starting to make a nonsense of the traditional idea that television comes in channels, pre-packaged and pre-digested: if you want it to, your Sky Plus box will search out every available episode of your favourite show and record it, using the information in Sky’s seven-day electronic programme guide, no matter what channel it’s on. But that is just a first step.
Last week Google announced the launch of something called Google Video, which searches the “closed caption” information that comes with TV programmes for keywords, and displays still images and text from the point in a programme at which the key phrase is spoken. (Closed-caption technology is used in analogue TV broadcasts for teletext and subtitling for the deaf.) So far, only programme information from a handful of US channels is searchable, and still images are a long way from moving pictures, but it’s a start – and Google’s initiative follows a similar one from Yahoo! and the launch of something called blinkx.com, which searches for TV news, film trailers and other clips and then links to them. The BBC is developing a system that would make its TV and radio news programmes searchable online by automatically transcribing the speech as text and linking to a low-resolution video or audio copy of the relevant programme.
Ever since Sky’s digital service launched with more than 300 channels (including pay-per-view, near video-on-demand services) it’s been clear that viewers might need some help navigating through all this choice. The electronic programme guide is fine so far as it goes, but that isn’t very far: it lacks what the pointy-heads call “functionality”. If we’re really going to treat an evening in front of the television like a visit to the supermarket, picking and choosing what we want to watch rather than lazily accepting what channel schedulers choose to give us, something more sophisticated is needed, and internet search engines could be the answer: they are “intelligent”, and they can be “personalised” to remember our preferences.
Of course, you will have spotted a flaw in all this. Internet search engines run on the internet; most of us watch television on televisions. What’s the good of a device that takes you to a programme on your PC if you actually want to watch it on your TV? But that may be about to change: re-enter our old friend, convergence.
Theories of the convergence of broadcasting and the internet foundered on the reality that, although the inside of a digital television may be much like the inside of a computer and theoretically capable of doing many of the same things, people use computers and televisions differently and in different places. But now that broadband allows the delivery of television-quality video to almost any device you care to name; now that file-sharing and the swapping of media files between devices (from PC to iPod, for instance) are becoming commonplace; now that DVDs, which run equally well on televisions and laptops, are making a nonsense of the old distinctions; and now that file-sharing technology is helping to reduce the enormous costs of streaming audio and video online, “convergent screen delivery” could at last become a reality.
Microsoft is certainly betting that it will. It has just launched the Windows Media Centre, which can handle anything you’ll find on the Web plus video and audio files, not to mention your record collection and family photos. And crucially it contains a TV card that allows the capture of television programming in the same way as a PVR. Wire this new central box up to your Sky dish and your broadband connection and hey presto, yours is a truly convergent household.
Great news for the technophiles – less encouraging for traditional broadcasters and their advertisers. The converged world is one in which skipping ads may be routine, in which decades of investment in developing channel brands may count for nothing, in which the “shared experience” of watching a programme simultaneously with millions of others may vanish and in which video files downloaded from the Web replace broadcast television almost entirely. You have been warned.
Nick Higham presents Factfile on BBC News 24