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.
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?
That would be our "Standard" package, which is forty-six dollars a month.
And is that in HD?
No, you have to upgrade to our "Digital" package for HD, which is ninety dollars month.
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.
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!
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.
Precisely. It's how we make our money: by screwing you non-consensually with monopolistic practices!
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."