Editorial: What's wrong with TV, and what it might take to change it

America's favorite pastime, and perhaps that of all first-world countries, has yet to be truly rocked by technology. Sure, there have been a few true advancements like on-demand, streaming and the DVR, but only about 30 minutes of the average seven hours of TV Americans watched in 2010 was time shifted. Forty percent of homes have a DVR today, but most are just using them as tapeless VCRs. The reasons are complex and can't be summed up easily, but most would agree that DVRs and streaming options are where smartphones and MP3 players once were: plenty of people are throwing things against the wall, but nothing's sticking. I don't have the answers, but I do understand what the problem is and what it might take to change it. I can only hope that such a proposed change could become a self-fulfilled prophecy.

What is wrong with TV?

Many in the TV business would argue that there's nothing wrong with TV. Well, those are probably the same folks who said there was nothing wrong the music industry, smartphones and -- go far enough back -- the horse-drawn carriage. The number one problem with TV today is there are too many options and no easy, enjoyable way to find what to watch. Bruce first sang about there being 57 Channels And Nothin' on in 1992. Almost 20 years later, we have 1,000 channels and there's still nothing on. Obviously, something's on, but who can find it? There are so many options because we have 24/7 channels with four hours of original content a week -- if that. And, even when you do find a channel you like, good luck finding it again when you're on the road or visiting family when every market has a different lineup.

Then there are those channels that seem to have completely lost their way: instead of creating a new channel, they lie about who they are. Some of the biggest offenders are MTV, The History Channel and The Learning Channel. What's there to learn from American Chopper, exactly? And what history is revealed in Ice Road Truckers? What we have is a load of bad channels, with bad programing burning the 5Gbps of usable throughput. A few good channels subsidize the rest, while the majority only get in the way of us finding something to watch.

So why are people hitting the guide button before the recorded TV or on-demand button? Maybe it's because most DVRs offer a terrible user experience. On-demand UIs in particular are designed to sell content -- not to mention, make it near-impossible to find non-pay-per-view programming. Even when you do find something, good luck getting back to it later. The DVR was a great idea ten years ago, but having to make hard decisions because of the lack of recording space or paucity of available tuners is a far cry from the passive TV experience most of us crave -- seriously, who wants DVR maintenance to feel like checking a to-do list?

And then there's the remote. Is there any better example of completely blowing it than the slew of remotes that litter most people's living rooms? Why is it that in the age of the internet, no one can make a remote that just works? Why must they be programmed? The UPnP forum was founded 10 years ago and has yet to find a meaningful way into the living room. HDMI-CEC was introduced in 2003 and I can't think of a single set-top box source that supports it. Instead, everyone wants to try and force you to use theirs, which leads to remotes with twice as many buttons as needed. I mean, when the Harmony is the best consumer programmable remote available, and looks about the way it did when Logitech bought it in 2004, we have a serious problem.

What won't work

The great thing about ten years of watching big companies spend millions on terrible ideas is that we can learn from them, which gets us one step closer to the real future. The first lesson, which hasn't been learned yet, is that keyboards have no place in the living room. It didn't work when Microsoft did it with the WebTV in 1996 and it doesn't work on the Google TV. A keyboard is simply too complex for the lean back, relaxing atmosphere of the living room. The reality is that small touchscreen devices and voice recognition are better suited for searching, and due to the passive nature of TV viewing, I think people want to browse first and search second.

Channels as apps is also a really bad idea. The idea of jumping in and out of multiple apps to find something to watch is just ridiculous. Even if the user experience differences weren't so jarring, the time it takes to open and close an app and the lack of truly personalized channels makes it a fail. Unified search across all apps might make it tolerable, but like I said, people want to browse first and search second. Not to mention, the possibility that a box maker would return honest search results unmolested by advertisers is nil.

And then there is the DVR. If mine stopped working today, I'd consider giving up TV completely. But there's no place for it in the future of TV. I no longer want to think about when shows are coming on, if I have enough tuners or if I have enough space to save everything I want to watch someday. Of course, the DVR is popular because it's not tied down by content windows, so as long as streaming content has a shelf life out of our control, the DVR is a necessary evil.

Obviously, multiple boxes are a bad idea, but they're also necessary for various reasons. The key is for them to play nice with each other, and the answer isn't a one-way interface like IR, or an HDMI pass-through with multiple user interfaces layered on top of each other. Forcing one box to get along with the other via one way communication and control interfaces like IR will always lead to kludge. Multiple companies making boxes that are designed to not work with others in the name of a bad business model will not work.

So called over-the-top streaming services also can't enjoy any mainstream success. It might seem like a service like Netflix could become so compelling and competitive that it would motivate millions to cut the cord and jump into the twenty-first century. But believe me, if such a service was actually causing people to cancel their TV service, the companies who own the lines that the service ran over would do whatever it could to preserve its revenue stream. Indications of this reality have already lead to the current net neutrality debate.

Barriers to the future of TV

So if it's obvious what's wrong with TV, why hasn't anyone done anything about it? The reason is simple: the keepers of the content have existing business models to protect, and understandably, they aren't willing to risk proven revenue sources for an unproven one -- I typically accept a new job before quitting a gig too. The hard truth is that charging consumers for programming and at the same time getting them to sit through commercials is a very lucrative business and technology doesn't change that.

The telecom companies own the content because they own the wires that run into our homes. There simply isn't another way to get content into homes in the same quantity or quality. That in and of itself isn't a problem, but what is a problem is that they leverage that control to not only control what content makes it into the home, but also how the content is bundled -- and eventually how the content is discovered. This problem was recognized by Congress when they enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but sadly governments aren't known for their vision and as a result the mandates created by the FCC has been unable to separate the box and its user interface from the content. The problem is that there is no motivation for the incumbents to advance the technology of TV in a meaningful way or to permit others to compete with them. When asked at The D conference last year why Apple hadn't moved its TV business beyond the hobby status, Steve Jobs explained: "It's not a problem with technology, it's not a problem with vision, it's a fundamental go-to-market problem." There are a number of examples of no-name technology companies coming to power and changing the landscape, but in the case of TV, content is king and wires that lock us into our provider also lock us into a box and its user experience, no matter how bad it is. Allowing outside third parties to make a box and a user interface means real competition (on the level playing field that is input one) -- something the current giants will never enter into willingly.

The solution

I doubt many people would argue that telecommunications is as essential a service to our modern society as water and electricity. I joke that if I were broke, the last two bills I'd pay would be my internet and my electricity, and the only reason I'd pay the electricity is because otherwise I couldn't use the internet. Obviously, in a post-apocalyptic world, water is far more important, but just imagine for a second the negative impact on the world's economy if the internet was down for any extended period of time. Now, of course TV isn't an essential service -- beyond news during a disaster -- but as any geek can tell you: TV, phone, the internet, are all just bits. So while digital connectivity to the outside world is an essential service in our world, the various types of service carried by those bits may not be.

Utilities like electricity have been monopolies tightly regulated by the government for a long time and telecommunications should be regulated the same way. In fact, the telephone is/was considered an essential service, but the laws that control that are as outdated as analog phones themselves. Monopolies aren't always a problem, the problem is when an essential resource is tied to sub-par service (in this case, hundreds of bad channels and unsatisfying user interfaces). So the solution is simple: content offerings should not be tied to telecommunication services. This would allow competing companies to find alternative ways for you to take advantage of the typical 5Gbps of throughput that is available, and not just use it to show reruns.

What would be interesting to see is what types of businesses might come from a model like this. When we switched from land lines to mobile phones, we traded our flat rate local calling for pre-allocated blocks of minutes and now we don't expect to pay for long distance. Would channels still be purchased as bundles? Would à la carte channels, or even programs prevail? Would most of the programs be free with advertising, or would people have an option to pay to watch commercial free? Ideally, a model would exist that would make more niche programming possible without forcing popular programming to subsidize it. If the competitive laws of our society applied to America's favorite pastime, who knows what TV might look like, but I sure hope we get to find out.