November 3, 2010

Is Google TV What Independent Filmmakers Have Been Waiting For?

The day Google announced Google TV, I wrote "Google TV is what independent filmmakers have been waiting for." I was bullish about the possibilities the device offered for getting independent content onto living room screens, and I also wrote a piece extolling the device's (potential) virtues in the last issue of Filmmaker Magazine. Now that the device has launched to decidedly mixed reviews, however, do I feel Google TV is a failure? Not at all. Here's why:

Look at Google's last large hardware launch: the Android mobile operating system. The first version wasn't particularly impressive and left a bit to be desired, just as this first rev of Google TV does. Yet after a few versions, Android (on which Google TV runs) is now more popular than Apple's vaunted iOS, or any other smartphone platform for that matter. If you go back to the launch of the first Android phone, the largely forgotten T-Mobile G1, no one was predicting that Android phones would overtake iPhones anytime soon. This quote from the Engadget review of the G1, in fact, could apply to Google TV today:

At the end of the day, however, this isn't about the hardware, and really never was. The story here is Android and what it promises... though doesn't necessarily deliver on at first. Like any paradigm shift, it's going to take time.

Replace "Android" in that sentence with "Google TV" and you have the same situation today. Paradigm shifts don't happen overnight.

There's another parallel to draw with Android: Google's mobile OS became popular not just because of updates and adding new features, but through partnerships. By licensing the OS to hardware manufacturers like Motorola, HTC, Samsung, and everyone else under the sun, Google overtook Apple rapidly -- because of ubiquity. Similarly, Logitech's set-top box is only one of dozens of eventual incarnations of Google TV. Sony's version, which is launching as part of their new line of TVs, and also as a combo Blu-ray player, is in fact receiving more praise than the Logitech:

As Google adds more partners, gets the cost down, and adds more features, Google TV's ubiquity should become a strength, similar to Android. As more and more services launch Google TV-ready interfaces like YouTube Leanback and Vimeo's great new Couch Mode, the apps in your Google TV dashboard can more readily supplant cable TV channels. And as I've pointed out repeatedly, getting independent content onto an open web-surfing device like Google TV is far easier than getting content on cable TV or even into a store like iTunes.

Let's look at how cable works now, and why Google TV is finding a number of potential partners uncooperative at launch. I recently encountered firsthand just how asinine the current cable TV world is when I called Time Warner here in New York. I saw on our cable bill that my roommates and I are paying $18 a month for "basic" cable TV, which merely includes networks that are already available free (ABC, CBS, PBS, NBC, FOX), along with TBS, QVC, and one or two others. What is the point of paying for cable -- in standard-def, no less -- when most of it is available over the air, in HD, for free? To illustrate why I think cable TV is going to be forced to adapt by set-top boxes like Google TV, let's take a look at my exchange with Time Warner -- in script form. We'll replace me with CUSTOMER and Time Warner with BIG CABLE.


CUSTOMER
We're paying eighteen bucks for nothing. How much is your "Actual Cable" package, which includes channels like ESPN, TNT, Comedy Central -- you know, channels people actually watch, instead of this QVC crap?

BIG CABLE
That would be our "Standard" package, which is forty-six dollars a month.

CUSTOMER
And is that in HD?

BIG CABLE
No, you have to upgrade to our "Digital" package for HD, which is ninety dollars month.

CUSTOMER
Ninety dollars a month?!? Okay, I have a better idea. Let me just add the channels I want. What would that be, two bucks a channel? I'll add four or five channels and call it day.

BIG CABLE
You can't do that, because... Well, there's no good reason, except our antiquated contracts and negotiated carrier fees won't allow it. But it's not like you can switch to a different cable provider, because we're the only one in your area. Ha ha!

CUSTOMER
So basically you want me to pay for a bunch of crap I don't want, in order to get the few channels I actually watch.

BIG CABLE
Precisely. It's how we make our money: by screwing you non-consensually with monopolistic practices!

CUSTOMER
You know, come to think of it, I can get almost all of this stuff much cheaper through the internet. And while I'd like to get a few of your channels, times are tough. So I'm cutting the cord. I'll just use my Google TV/Boxee/Roku/Apple TV.

Of course, Google TV faces a lot of obstacles precisely because of the threat it represents to traditional TV profits. ABC, CBS, NBC and Hulu have already blocked the device from accessing their online video, which Google has characterized as a "misunderstanding." In their eyes, "asking Google to pay to access shows on websites is like asking Microsoft to pay every time Internet Explorer is used to access NBC.com." It's going to be a protracted fight, and while I can certainly see past any shortcomings of the first-gen Google TV devices, it's a bit disconcerting to see how unwilling these major web sites are to allow Google TV to access their content. Rishi Chandra, product lead for Google TV, closed a recent presentation with the fitting words, "so how is all this going to play out... I don't know."

He doesn't know, and neither do I. Change is definitely afoot -- but it might take a bit of time. After all, we're talking about democratizing distribution and having independent content equally as accessible as that of multinational media conglomerates. As President Obama said recently on the Daily Show, "yes, we can, but... it is not going to happen overnight."

Your Comment

6 Comments

First off, your website is my homepage. I love the information you provide. You dont come off pompous or inaccessible. Ok, on to the topic..I believe web based television is definitely the long term answer to user satisfaction. I understand the "monopolistic" alliances between the cable companies and the networks, but at the end of the day it all comes down to one simple fact: The technology needed to make this endeavor possible isnt years away. It's being used right now. Napster woke up the music industry just like watch-movies.net is waking up the film industry. This isn't like the killing of the electric car. Once the cat is out of the bag, you cant reasonably expect to NOT see a cat walking around. Legally or Illegally this revolution is upon us. The cable companies can either get on the band wagon, start offering people true choice AND interactivity, or they can fall into utter irrelevancy like the record companies.The cable companies have to be able to see this as an opportunity and not a threat. In the end they will have to concede some control, but the first company to do so will be embraced, just like Itunes was embraced after the napster situation. Too bad the youth movement hasnt broken into the board room. Look at Zuckerberg! The guy is changing the way the world connects to one another one line of code at a time and he is doing it EVERY DAY. Thats the way our broadband world operates. minute to minute, moment to moment, everything occuring and reoccurring in real time. The cable companies have created consumer base of zombies, and they…WE WANT MORE BRAIIINSS!

November 3, 2010 at 4:20PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Nathan Karamanski

I cut my cable. Use Netflix, iTunes. For the most part it has worked out. My biggest complaint with a device like this is that it encourages multi-tasking. People are addicted to getting online. It would suck if they continue doing it while watching a movie. Movies to be effective needs an audience to be attentive and emotionally invested. I hope we never lose the dark quiet theater atmosphere.

November 4, 2010 at 10:34AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Me neither, but after paying $35 for two tickets to Jackass 3D (under duress), I think the dark quiet theater atmosphere is coming at way too high a cost these days (when you can watch the same thing in HD at home three months later as part of your $10/month Netflix subscription).

November 4, 2010 at 12:04PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Quiet theater atmosphere? Where do you watch movies? The last movie I saw in a theater, people would not stop talking through it. The ONLY thing a movie theater offers that your living room does not is the communal experience. A large group participating in a (hopefully good) shared event. And people multi-task in theaters, too. There is nothing like an exhilarating, cathartic moment illuminated by the smart phone of the guy sitting in front of you. As for GoogleTV, I don't (yet) see it offering any more substantial access to independent film content than is already offered on the internet. I already have my networked computer hooked up to 33" flat screen TV. The only thing GoogleTV seems to offer is a different interface which can be another layer BETWEEN my content and its potential audience. Unless a filmmaker's content lands in one of the readily accessible Google channels/Apps, the end user will have to work that much harder to get to it. Most people are lazy (or just in a hurry) and will most often interact with whatever is placed in front of them FIRST. So like Cable (and the Hollywood distribution chain) filmmakers still have to contend with some form of "gatekeeping". But that is not to say that GoogleTV is useless or does not have potential. I think any new tool that offers us more choices is a good thing. And cutting the cord to Time Warner Cable is a very good start.

November 5, 2010 at 4:12PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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My point is this. By enabling unfettered web access, Google TV enables the independent filmmaker to get their content on the living room screen, without needing to go through iTunes, Amazon, etc.

Of course, this requires:

1. A good film
2. A good web site
3. A way for people to watch your film on your web site

These things are too rare today. But you used the word "potential," and that's exactly my point.

November 5, 2010 at 5:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

I am more than disappointed with Google with Google TV. With all their previous services, Google have given priority to Americans. Americans getting invitations to their services first, and all promotions aimed at Americans. Google are repeating the same strategy foolishly for Google TV.

Their American centric mindset has them only seeing potential with American Network programming. Not to mention they are aiming their service to Americans primarily. They do not realise that for decades, there have been countless international studios contracted to create American programming at bargain basement rates for major American studios and Networks and then dumped when they got uppity enough to ask for rates that may actually pay the bills.

These independent studios and independent creators around the world are eyeing up internet based broadcasting at this point. Some of us have been in preproduction for 18 months and are now ready to start filming. Google though are ignoring an army of A grade TV creators in favor of American creators. The funding I have seen Google hand out so far has been to American producers, and they have been chasing American studios. This means that investors are not very keen on funding international creators, because Google are ignoring anyone who is not American.

This leaves the international creators angry, and planning on going into competition with Google TV instead of partnering with Google TV. Not the best situation for Google when every American Network has now blocked access to Google TV... including Fox now. Google has no content now, and truth be told, it is their own fault. They did not even have the intelligence to bolster international independent content creators to use to threaten American Networks with. The internet may have been easy to conquer because the competition was inexperienced... but the broadcast industry is managed by intelligent and experienced people. Something Google has never faced before.

November 11, 2010 at 2:38PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Bunny