Rich Greenfield, the BTIG analyst who’s something of a digital media oracle, isn’t exaggerating when he says, “The future of television has begun” (registration required). Click play on the video above for a brief tour of what has him so excited.
The service is Time Warner Cable’s new application for Roku set-top boxes. It allows TWC subscribers to view live and on-demand programming on any screen with a Roku connected to it. If that didn’t exactly blow your mind, here’s why it should:
∙ In the future of television, the set-top box is king. Screens will be increasingly plentiful, and turning them into full-fledged internet and media devices—what we used to call “computers”—is already pretty easy. Small set-top devices like the brand-new Roku 3, which costs $99, are all you need to get programming onto a television screen.
That’s why people increasingly think Apple’s much-anticipated “television” will actually be two products: a high-resolution screen and a set-top box similar to the existing Apple TV. Then the question is simply, what is the set-top box capable of doing? And, obviously, playing television shows is just a small part of the answer to that question.
∙ The internet and television are converging. There’s no cable box involved in TWC’s Roku app, which may be the most radical thing about it. It’s TV, but the signal is delivered over the internet. TWC can do this because—like Cablevision, AT&T, Verizon, and others—it’s both a cable television provider (an MVPD in industry jargon) and internet service provider (ISP).
Cable TV and internet are already traveling over the same pipes, which TWC owns and apportion as it sees fit. In fact, the signal for its apps on Roku and other devices uses a dedicated portion of the internet, free from other traffic, which makes the picture crystal clear. The difference between cable TV and internet service is already blurry, and this just blurs it further.
The next step in this evolution would be a cable television service that dispenses with cable boxes entirely and delivers the content entirely over the internet (a virtual MVPD). That’s what Intel says it’s working on, and other companies likely are, as well. Most of the companies heading in this direction are based in the US, but the convergence of TV and internet is happening everywhere.
∙ Bundles have resilience but not dominance. The real future of television is supposed to break apart the bundles that force cable subscribers to pay for MTV when they all they really want is ESPN—a la carte. But though it’s the subject of a new lawsuit filed by Cablevision against Viacom, bundling is not going away anytime soon, which is why the TWC app for Roku, with all its channels bundled together, is indeed part of the future of TV.
But only part of it! On Roku, for instance, TWC is just one of many apps. (The same is true for the similar TWC apps for iPhones and iPads.) Other apps you could choose, instead, include Netflix, Hulu, Amazon… You get the picture. A bundled cable TV experience has plenty of value, especially for sports fans, but in modern living rooms, it’s just one of many options.
∙ Remotes and programming guides are finally getting better. You can see in Greenfield’s video that TWC’s app for Roku, like its apps for iPads and iPhones, looks nothing like the channel guide on a typical cable box. The visual interface is much easier to navigate, taking a page from other user-friendly apps like Netflix. And on top of that, Roku now has a universal search feature that lets you find content across all of the apps you use. Type in “Seinfeld” to see if it’s streaming on Netflix, available for purchase on Amazon, or airing live right now through TWC.
These improved visual interfaces, which dispense with outdated channel numbers, also allow for much more intuitive remote controls. These are starting to pop up all over the place. The remote for Apple TV has just three buttons. The new Roku remote also has a Wii-like motion sensor and headphone jack for private listening.
∙ Cord cutting is real; it’s just not what you think it is. It’s a great irony that TWC has built an app for Roku, which was not long ago seen as a device for cord cutters: people who ditch their cable TV subscriptions in favor of content delivered entirely over the internet. (Even more ironic: Before it was spun out as a separate company, Roku was initially developed by Netflix.)
There’s much debate about how many people are actually cutting the cord, but that kind of misses the point. Cord cutters are simply early adopters of a future that we’re all headed toward, in which all content is delivered over the internet and, as discussed above and in Greenfield’s post, cable TV is just one of many apps. Over time, with increased competition from services like Netflix, cable companies will be forced to offer more attractive deals (either cheaper subscriptions or, perhaps, a la carte offerings). That’s less of a sharp break, which is what cutting the cord implies, than an organic evolution, which is how the future is always formed.