Media slowly replaces the medium

The Idiot Box is supposed to be a column about TV. But for my first column I say “fuck TV.” TV is on the way out anyway. Content has always been king. Yet, we cling to that ugly black box with its standard-definition image and commercials and “schedules” and we’re thankful for it. The past year has proven that time and time again that television as we know it no longer exists. And if you don’t believe it, I’m going to prove it to you. Just take a look at this season.

The Digital Video Recorder is slowly entering the realm of become more and more standard television equipment. Now, don’t ask me for numbers cause I can’t provide those to you. I’m not the guy you come to for numbers. I can spout facts off TiVo’s press releases and some blogs quoting statisticians on the market saturation of DVRs, but it’d just be blowing smoke up your ass. Simple fact: my household got a TiVo this year and every family member who has seen it has wanted one. Even my grandfather who struggles with the remote control for his recliner chair wants one. And I have seen those numbers indicating that demand has gone up somewhere. Just don’t ask me where.

And if they haven’t, they damn well should be.

At the very beginning of the fall season, UPN offered the pilot episode of “Everybody Hates Chris” online, through GoogleVideo. For free. No commercials or anything. Just “enjoy the pilot and if you like it, tune in Thursdays at 8 for more episodes!” Streaming content direct to the viewer, on their own terms and schedule. UPN called it “an experiment.” I called it the next step from DVR. Instead of having to tell the machine “I want this” before it airs, you could watch it whenever you felt like it. It was just sitting there, online, waiting for you.

Then in October, Apple comes out with the iPod Video, the device Steve Jobs once said he didn’t see the need for. Well, there was a need for it and here it was. Now the mp3 player of the masses could be loaded up with video content, all available through the ubiquitous iTunes software, most for a nominal fee. At first it was mostly music videos and movie trailers. Now, I can load it up and download entire seasons of shows ranging from classics like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to current shows like “24” mere hours after they air on television. For a buck, ninety-nine, you can download it to your iPod and watch it whenever you want. And people gobbled it up.

I don’t know to what extent it goes, but I know that the BBC in England also offers some of it’s programs as streaming content direct from their website. I happened to catch an episode of “The IT Crowd” once while wondering what the UK had to offer. And I watched it before it even aired on TV, which is just ballsy. Am I missing anything else from our friends at the Beeb? Probably.

Now, about a month back, ABC, which already offered a number of their shows for download in iTunes (in fact, hits like “Lost” and “Alias” seem to be amongst the biggest draws considering they’re always listed in the top ten shows when I log into the iTunes Store), decided to try their own system, offering streaming episodes online for free, albeit with commercials. Yes, that “experiment” was back again. In fact, this is one “experiment” you can see for yourself. It’s still running until the end of June. I myself used it to watch the entire fifth season of “Alias,” which I had missed on the air. In a matter of days, I was able to completely catch up in time to watch the finale with the rest of the world.

I know I said I wasn’t going to offer numbers, but I got them on me about this: in 18 days, ABC had 2 million streams whereas Disney had only 800,000 downloads in its first eight weeks on iTunes. I’m sure price is a factor, but that’s for the economists to worry about, not me. I just want to point out what happens when you give the people what they want.

Sure, the technology isn’t quite up to par yet (the flash site looks like they found the designers on NewGrounds and the streaming video uses up so much bandwidth, IMs would cause stutter problems), but its another step away from the television box. In fact, streaming video itself has almost become a whole other “channel” of content, what with the aforementioned GoogleVideo and YouTube gaining dominance over the broadband medium’s video distribution system. Strangely enough, while streaming video sites try to emulate television with abstract concepts like channels, television tried to emulate online video with the channel Current TV, which tries its darndest to look and feel like its online content constantly being updated for the technologically savvy (last I checked, it failed on that count, but that’s another column for another day).

Face facts: the standard system we’ve been relying on for years of having to sit down during the primetime hours and choose which network’s programs and commercials we’re prepared to sit through is dying. How can I call myself a television junkie when half of the shows I watch aren’t even on the television? I do my TV on DVD, my downloaded and streamed content on my computer. What I do watch on the TV, I let my TiVo handle for me, so I can skip those annoying commercials and watch the shows I want in the order I want. I’m not a television junkie; I’m a content cow. I live for the media, not the medium. Which is, I suppose, as it should be. We don’t love paintings for the types of canvas or pastels being used, but the end result the combination can provide us with.

One last note: there has also been the huge boom that torrents and torrenting sites have had on downloading television. It is ethically and legally a questionable act to download television shows. I confess that I see both sides of the argument fairly clearly and I myself fall on one side more than the other. Suffice to say, a lot of people do it. If they didn’t the system wouldn’t work in the first place. Digital “economics,” I guess you could call it. It makes sense too, when you consider the above. Download your shows in high-quality formats without commercials for no cost. Personally, I’m waiting for a network to just attach commercials to video files and torrent episodes themselves.

As “an experiment,” of course.