Monday’s Apple event wasn’t just about an ultralight notebook computer that I really want and a watch that I don’t. There were also two announcements regarding television that were quite interesting.1
- The price for the current Apple TV dropped to $69. This third-generation model has been on the market since 2012 and was available for $99 as recently as this past weekend. I imagine that this is an intermediate move on Apple’s part. There are clearly better options for OTT streaming devices, even for die-hard Apple nerds, and I would hope Apple plans to release an improved version in the near future for the $70 same price. (Or not… what do I know?)
- HBO Now will launch exclusively on Apple devices for $15 per month. In some ways, this move is big because it marks the first time HBO is available without a multichannel TV subscription and could be a threat to multichannel TV as we know it. Consumers begged HBO to offer something like this, and now we know that it will be a full-featured service, not a crippled version that only the pay TV subscribers get.
In my most recent New Media class, I addressed the second announcement as an example of a technology adapting to our needs. We were discussing how social network sites were great for, you know, networking socially. Facebook has been great for sharing with your nearby friends, distant classmates, and obsessively doting relatives. After a while, though, we learned that our unsavory activities, such as our party pics, can be found by a potential employer, a college recruiter, or that human you are trying to date. The sharing aspect of Facebook is great, but the permanence is not. So, we now have something like Snapchat, and that is where we share indiscriminately because of its evanescence. We found a technology that better suited a particular need.
HBO Now is intended to provide stream HBO to those without pay TV subscriptions. But a lot of people I know already stream HBO programming with HBO Go. They just use someone else’s credentials to access it. As intrepid cord cutters, we already figured out how to get the product we need without HBO offering it. I’m not going to guess whether HBO Now is going to succeed. It could be a decade-long lifeline as iTunes was for the music industry or it could be as negligible as News Corp making an iPad-native Daily newsmagazine.
The Technology We Deserve
Net Neutrality plays an important role with this OTT service. Chris Morran at Consumerist speculates about the power of an ISP without net neutrality rules, where one could theoretically “throttle HBO Now while still allowing HBO Go to get through at full speed, effectively saying that the only way to get a decent HBO streaming service is if you have a cable package.” But with net neutrality rules, the two services should operate at the same level of performance. I won’t need to have my TV polluted with reality TV shows and shitty reruns in order to watch The Wire in 1080p.
The only not-neutral thing about the HBO Now service is that it will initially launch on only Apple devices, such as Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone. Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast users will have to miss out on Game of Thrones until midsummer. Perhaps Mark Cuban was right when he said that we shouldn’t worry about the power of ISPs and that instead we should “worry about Google and Apple” because they make the operating systems of our mobile devices.
The Technology We Don’t Need
A few years ago, only the most devoted Internet libertarians were cognizant of that an ISP could potentially throttle or block a service it didn’t “like.” Today, even casual Internet users are skeptical about the control their ISP could potentially wield. For example, after the HBO Now announcement, Comcast subscribers were unable to access the http://hbonow.com website. It turns out that it was a technical problem caused by a DNS issue on HBO’s part, not some sinister shenanigans at the hands of Comcast. But because everyone hates their cable companies and because Comcast is as big as a cable company gets, the Internet reflexively blamed Comcast.
It’s hard to shed a tear for Comcast though. As I mentioned earlier, when a technology fails to meet our needs or desires, we move on to something else. Cable television as we know it evolved from two converging technologies: Community Antenna TV and satellite cable.2 CATV was a demand-side technology. Starting in the 1940s, CATV operators piped TV signals to TV set owners living in areas where an over-the-air signal wasn’t available. CATV was almost a necessity for people living in a valley, such as in rural Pennsylvania, or in densely populated and overbuilt area, such as Manhattan, because the terrain blocked the radio signals necessary for TV reception. Satellite cable, on the other hand, was a supply-side technology. Beginning in the 1970s, it allowed national distribution for emerging television channels, such as Ted Turner’s WTBS-TV in Atlanta and the Manhattan-based Home Box Office. In both cases, CATV and satellite cable—eventually merging as the modern cable TV industry—enabled TV viewers to get what the broadcasters were failing to provide them. Today, however, the cable companies are the ones failing to provide us what we want, and that’s why we’ve migrated to something that does.
And, I’m sorry, Apple. As of right now, I still can’t figure out why I need a smartwatch.
- All that health stuff was not interesting. ↩
- Read Megan Mullen, The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution? (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003) for a great account of the evolution of the cable TV indusry. ↩