Thursday, February 02, 2006

Let's Do the Time Warp: Video on Demand

Longing for video-on-demand

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, April 29, 1998 -- [Image]
It's amazing that in an era when we're sending
our robot surrogates to Mars, videoconferencing overseas
and farming human livers inside a pig, I still have to be
in front of a TV at 10 p.m. (or have had the foresight to
program my VCR for that time) if I want to catch E.R.

The VCR was originally conceived as a device to help
solve this problem via "time shifting" -- literally,
taking a televised event that occurs at one time and
allowing it to happen at some other time. While scheduled
programs that occur live, such as sporting events and
political speeches, make sense as fixed events in time to
be broadcast on schedule, so many other programming
options do not.

That's why video-on-demand seems like a too-long-awaited
solution. It would work much the way pay-per-view works,
but with a much more extensive selection. A list of
programs are available (or you can do a search for what
you'd like to see) and you choose what you want to watch
when you want to watch it.

While several venues for providing video-on-demand are
technically feasible, its slow start seems more related
to questions about marketing and profit margins than to
the inability to find desirable applications. Some
video-on-demand services go for a substantial fee, and
have found lucrative business applications. The
possibility to download video feeds from the net (see
RealMedia) has also been growing, with an
extra-enthusiastic push from the porn industry.

Video-on-demand has a much more pedestrian, mainstream
application: allowing the average TV viewer to control
what he or she watches, and when. It seems obvious that
this is something that would make any consumer happy. So
what's the holdup?

For one thing, content providers have to feel confident
that people will suddenly be willing to pay fees on top
of what they already do for cable or satellite service.
More important, video-on-demand takes the advertiser, AKA
the cash cow, out of the loop. If the viewer is choosing
what he wants to see, why would anyone ever watch the
annoying commercials that fund today's programming? What
could motivate a content provider to promote an
application that sets the audience free to watch only
what it wants to watch? While infomercials and shopping
channels do have their faithful viewers, the tried and
true commercial interruption (no matter how untimely)
offers advertisers the most for their money: a captive
audience.

I have faith in the modern-day entertainment businessman,
however, and feel confident that someone can find a way
to force-feed us enough product placements and
brand-awareness devices to make video-on-demand
worthwhile to someone. In the meantime, I'll just keep
honing my VCR programming skills and making frequent
trips to the video rental place so I can feel somewhat in
control of my TV viewing.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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