TV Is Dead: Long Live Distributed Video

Almost since its mainstream introduction in the 1940s and 1950s, television has been the dominant mass medium. Today, television ad revenues in the US are estimated to be between $60 and $70 billion. But the internet, like cable TV and DVRs before it, is shaking up the industry and fundamentally changing consumer behavior. There are what might be called “structural shifts” happening in viewing habits. The TV itself isn’t going away, but TV as we have known it may be.

Yesterday the Pew Internet & American Life Project was just the latest to put out survey findings that document the accelerating rise of online video (based on a survey of just over 2,000 US adults in Q4). Here are the top-level findings (verbatim):

The audience for YouTube and other internet video sites has risen sharply the past year. Nearly half of online adults now say they have visited such sites. On a typical day at the end of 2007, the share of internet users going to video sites was nearly twice as large as it had been at the end of 2006.

The basic findings in a national phone survey that ended in December show:

48% of internet users said they had ever visited a video-sharing site such as YouTube. A year ago, in December 2006, 33% of internet users said they had ever visited such sites. That represents growth of more than 45% year-to-year.

15% of respondents said they had used a video-sharing site “yesterday” – the day before they were contacted for our survey. A year ago, 8% had visited such a site “yesterday.” Thus, on an average day, the number of users of video sites nearly doubled from the end of 2006 to the end of 2007.

Beyond these data, a small sampling of other recent findings confirm the phenomenon:

Online video distribution

In recognition of this consumer migration and the consumer sensation that YouTube and iTunes have become, traditional media companies and content producers are rapidly cutting deals to distribute their content online, on third-party sites as well as building proprietary competitors to YouTube (e.g., Hulu).

Historically, people have watched “short form” video content online – in other words, clips and snippets. However, there is also evidence that consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with longer-form content online, especially as the networks and content producers make it available. But users often watch longer-form content – TV episodes, for example – when they’ve missed shows on broadcast or cable TV, suggesting that conventional TV and online video may be complementary rather than competitive in a zero-sum sense.

Habits are still evolving, so it’s too early to make definitive pronouncements about whether TV and online video truly complement or compete with one another. However, one factor that will largely determine whether online video does become competitive is the quality of the online video experience. Consumer research reflects that the quality and stability of the streams and images are critical to whether consumers continue watching or abandon the experience.

(There’s a long discussion of online video monetization that might go here, but I’ll defer that until later.)

There’s also some evidence that the US television writers’ strike has had a negative effect on TV viewing and sent many people to the internet for video instead. The BBC cites Nielsen data, which reflects that “some online video sites have doubled their audience since the strike began at the end of October.” The suggestion is that there’s a causal relationship between the two events.

Even though the internet appears to be luring more and more viewers from traditional TV, the experience of watching video on TV remains superior to one’s laptop or desktop in most cases. Ironically, what may change TV more than audience migration to the internet is the reverse phenomenon: the internet coming to TV.

The internet on TV

There are now a range of devices, from Apple TV to Xbox 360 and the Sling Catcher, among others, that allow for the direct download of video content, movies, and/or the internet on conventional TVs. Earlier this week at CES, cable provider and ISP Comcast announced a new video destination and set-top strategy that relies on direct movie downloads. Within the same 24 hour period, Panasonic announced a TV outfitted especially for Google content that reportedly will allow users to browse and access videos from YouTube and view Picasa Web albums. (Of course, many companies are working to deliver TV and video to mobile devices as well.)

I’ve spoken several times in the recent past with Truveo CEO Tim Tuttle about how online video content and video search will eventually make their way onto traditional TV. For example, AOL’s Truveo claims to have more video content (professional and user-generated) than any other video site or search engine. What if all this content were delivered via a set-top box or other IP connection to the “living room TV” at speeds and quality levels that met user expectations? There might not be a reason to have a cable TV subscription — except to get the pipe/set-top box that allowed content delivery, of course. The irony is striking.

Search on TV

I would argue that we’re perhaps four or five years away from the TV becoming a mainstream internet access device, not just for video content, but much more broadly for conventional internet content. AT&T has been experimenting with offering a limited version of local search in some of its IPTV markets.

If I’m right and much more internet content or the internet wholesale does come to TV, it may have a profound impact on search in interesting and perhaps unpredictable ways. The familiar “ten blue links” or even most blended search won’t be that compelling on a TV, which will demand a much visually richer presentation. In addition, navigation is likely to be dominated by browsing or voice search, which may have a similarly “disruptive” impact on the way that content is presented.

In fact, search on mobile devices and, eventually, on TV may independently but dramatically influence the future of search on the desktop. It remains to be seen, but that’s my hunch.

In a rich visual environment with a fast connection, Virtual Earth 3D, Google Earth, and sites like Everyscape become potentially very mainstream as search tools. Visual information becomes much more useful compared with text, which until recently has dominated internet content. And gaming, social networking, and search start to potentially come together in very interesting ways on a large screen in the living room.

There’s a good deal more to speculate and say about all this, but this is already quite a long post so I’ll end here.

Related Topics: Channel: Video | Search Engines: Video Search Engines

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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