Some futuristic prognostications start with the premise that things will look so very differently in five or 10 years, maybe 20.
By contrast, the future of that thing we now call “television” is unfolding right under our feet, or under our remote controls, or whatever metaphor you care to pick. You get the idea.
With each passing day, there’s some amazing announcement from Amazon or Netflix or Aereo or Crackle or even good old “cable” companies that are quickly inventing their own future, while plucky upstarts try creatively destroying nearly everything, because that’s what plucky upstarts do best.
A case in point: I now count at least eight different brands of set-top gadgets that collect and display your cooking and house-hunter shows. Roku, Boxee, Slingbox, Apple, Google, Amazon, Playstation, Xbox and — whew — I could go on for a while. That doesn’t even count stupifyingly valuable all-online entities like Hulu or Vice.
We in the media could report the geeky details of each gadget upgrade every single day, but you have to know when to pull the trigger. Verizon pulled that trigger this week when CEO and former Navy Seabee Lowell McAdam divulged that Verizon has buried the hatchet with Netflix, so all our streaming shows might actually, you know, stream.
So, hold onto your bag of chips or bowl of popcorn, here we go:
Netflix: Perhaps the most important news for Netflix fans here came about rather quietly. McAdam said, “We have reached a deal with Netflix, but we’re not providing further details. I can tell you that we reached this agreement to deliver improved service for our combined customers.” The only other detail: The deal was “similar to Comcast,” referring to a truce that Netflix and Comcast signed whereby Netflix will pay a trainload of cash to Comcast for better bandwidth for Comcast customers. Not shockingly, a wee bit later, Netflix warned that prices may inch up a few bucks a month. Ain’t capitalism grand? Such deals matter because the idea of an open and free Internet only goes so far. Companies that own the wires (or fibers) that go into our houses get a lot of say about how much traffic goes over those connections. By some measurements, Netflix was using up huge gobs of the whole Internet bandwidth during prime time, leading to a spat with Verizon over the concept of “parity,” a wonky term that describes the idyllic world where every company agrees to carry each other’s traffic, as long as it’s roughly even. And so we now have Netflix paying a toll in exchange for a bit more parity. Yes, perhaps Netflix could expand its itsy-bitsy stale library, but it also produces amazing new shows like “House of Cards.”
Comcast: You may need to draw a family tree on this one, but it matters, so here goes.
Here in Tampa Bay, Bright House Networks is a major cable provider with 1 million customers between Tampa and Orlando. It acquires most of its TV shows from Time Warner Cable as part of a longstanding relationship. Now, Comcast plans on buying Time Warner. Comcast has its own deals with Hollywood movie and TV companies, not to mention ESPN and others. So, what happens here when/if Comcast owns Time Warner? That’s a bit fuzzy. The overall channel lineups for Comcast and Time Warner are pretty similar. But, if Comcast has a different deal than Time Warner did on ESPN or Discovery, there’s potential for changes to your channel lineup here, or perhaps even your cable bill, if the freight on those channels costs more for Bright House to buy from Comcast than Time Warner. Stay tuned on that one, sports fans.
Amazon: With each passing day, Amazon seems to announce some exclusive new deal for big-hit TV shows, from HBO, FX or others. This means if you want to stream “Downton Abbey” or “The Sopranos” online, you’d better have the Amazon app set up on your TV or some other box. There are some ways around it — say, if you pay for HBO and have the HBO GO app, or maybe the Amazon app on your Roku, or the Roku app on your TV to stream Amazon through that ... do you have vertigo yet? It gets complicated. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos clearly sees a future in streaming TV, and more of it involves going through Amazon. And to make that all easier, Amazon now has its own TV box — available, of course, at Amazon.com. Remember those simpler times long ago when your only big decision with television was choosing between the cable company and the satellite company? Ah, 2013 was a good year.
Aereo: Which brings me to the most geeky and etherial topic of them all. Aereo. This is a company created almost directly out of a lawsuit. I’ll spare you the details, but there was a fight inside the cable/media world over “rebroadcasting” copyright arcana, and a judge decided the case by saying, essentially, “You can do this, but not that, m’Kay?” So, a plucky startup called Aereo sprung into existence to finesse those rules, and media tycoon Barry Diller backed it. Essentially, federal law prohibits a company from setting up one antenna and re-transmitting TV shows for a profit — that’s a “public performance,” and verboten without a license, as in cash. So, Aereo gets around this by building data center cabinets filled with hundreds of tiny antennas that Aereo literally rents to individual customers who pay about $8 a month so they can stream things like ABC and CBS online and store shows in a virtual DVR online. Why do people bother when they can just buy an antenna? Who knows. But it’s “innovative” and “disruptive” and horrifically infuriating to cable companies and broadcasters who took all this as an existential threat and fought the case up to the Supreme Court, which just spent a lot of time trying to understand what a virtual DVR in the “cloud” is anyway. The court could render judgment by summer.
AOL: Remember AOL? That Internet service provider people used to pay for by the hour? The company is searching for a new (profitable) purpose in life, and one funky project is producing new, original online shows. One of the first, “Connected,” stars Steve Buscemi, James Franco and Ellen Degeneres. Totally unscripted, and one preview I saw shows Buscemi just gabbing with random people on a park bench. M’kay? But cheers to AOL for creative courage. Crackle: Similarly, the Sony-owned online channel Crackle will have a new program called “Tightrope,” backed by Walter White — er — Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad,” and Advertising Age reports that Crackle will have football commentator Dan Patrick hosting a couple of shows, “Sports Jeopardy” and “Throwaways” with actor Jeremy Renner. Stay tuned on that one, because if stars like Cranston and Renner are devoting hours of their lives to all-online shows, you know it could be as addictive as blue crystal.
“Which remote is this?”: It helps to think of all this content as contagious viruses hell-bent on infecting every device you own. Shows made by Netflix are creeping onto AppleTV. Shows made by Amazon are creeping onto Samsung TVs. Shows by Crackle are creeping everywhere with a broadband connection. This means you’ll have a half-dozen gadgets that may all have different entertainment lineups — your XBox, your iPad, your “cable” TV, your cellphone or Google Chromecast USB fob. I suggest drawing yourself a chart, lest you miss an episode of your favorite “television” channel.”
Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:
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Speaking of Amazon, perhaps it’s a sign of how we in the media are fixated on Amazon so much that we become blind to innovation elsewhere, but did anyone else miss the amazing new project of Target sSubscriptions? The project started a while back as a mail-order/auto delivery service for baby items like diapers. This month, Target expanded the lineup from 230 to 1,600 items, and it now includes vitamins, hair coloring, flea/tick treatments for dogs, K-Cups, cleaning supplies and lots of other stuff. It comes with 5 percent off (like with REDcard) and free shipping, and subscribers can build in reminders. “Furnace filters are another great example,” says Matt Cummings, subscriptions business manager. “You can schedule the filters to show up every three months so you never need to remember when you’re supposed to replace them.”
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One other item on Target. In the wake of the data breach disaster, Target will soon begin issuing new MasterCard REDcards, this time with so-called “cChip and PIN” technologies. Like the name implies, the cards will have tiny chips implanted inside that verify a more secure connection to the terminals (yes, the ones that were hacked before) and you’ll likely need to use a PIN to complete the transaction. That two-step authentication is already commonplace in Europe and should roll out with Target beginning 2015.
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Jeff Vinik will soon have a new option for lunch, and the rest of downtown will, too. A Too Jays restaurant is under construction at the base of the SunTrust tower at 401 E. Jackson that will have 70 seats inside and 50 outside. If contractors finish on time, the place should be open in June. Why did I mention Lightning owner Jeff Vinik? His company is run from the SunTrust tower — with the glass pyramid at the top that changes color.