Thursday, November 03, 2005

Big TV, Little TV

Not long ago, the New York Times published an article that suggests that “television” is splitting into two related, but significantly different, mediums. “Big TV” is watched on ever more giant monitors, takes advantage of all the latest presentation bells and whistles (HD, 5.1 sound, etc.), transmits content that comes in multiples of 30 minutes long, and is (usually) professionally produced. “Little TV” is watched on ever smaller screens, such as mobile phones, the new iPod and media players. Programs are designed to work well with a tiny screen and mono sound, so there’s no bells and whistles. Little TV programs are typically short (6 to 10 minutes,) but they can be any length. Finally, with a few exceptions, Little TV content is produced by individuals, not by a studio or large production company; while the quality can be very good, it’s rarely up to “professional” standards.

In days gone by, using Marshall McLuhan’s taxonomy, Big TV would be a “hot” medium and Little TV would be “cool.” Big TV invites passive observation, while Little TV invites active participation. Not only is that true for the audience, it’s true for producers as well. Big TV is usually produced months before it’s seen by an audience, and Big TV producers rarely care whether or not individual audience members actually like their programs. They only care about ratings, a handful of aggregate numbers around which the entire Big TV universe revolves.

Little TV, on the other hand, is usually delivered piping hot to the audience, no more than days (and sometimes, seconds) after it’s been produced. If audience members like or dislike the program, Little TV producers will hear about it instantly, on their and other people’s blogs and by email. Little TV programs have too small and dispersed an audience to be measured by ratings services, so Little TV producers rely on audience feedback and server hits to determine their programs’ popularities.

The tools used to create Big TV and Little TV are very different as well. Big TV uses everything from HD cameras to professional microphones, and programs are edited on Avid or Apple systems that get more “professional” as they get more expensive. While the cost of production and post-production equipment for Big TV has dropped precipitously, it’s still expensive. Even more important, Big TV production requires significant training and experience in order to get the best results. Big TV tools come from companies like Avid, Autodesk, Digidesign, Euphonix, Panasonic, Quantel and Sony—cameras that cost upwards of $100,000, post-production systems that can easily reach $500,000, and audio systems from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By contrast, Little TV programs cost next to nothing to produce. All that’s needed is an inexpensive DV camcorder, a decent microphone or two, a PC or Mac with basic media editing software and an Internet connection. Even if a producer uses a HD camcorder, great audio equipment and a full-blown post-production system, the benefits of all the bells and whistles will be lost on the Little TV screen. The big players in Little TV are companies like M-Audio and Pinnacle Systems (both owned by Avid,) Adobe, Apple, Panasonic and Sony—products that cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

For example, a producer can trick out a dual processor, dual core Apple G5 with lots of memory, a high-speed RAID array, a big HD monitor, a HD audio/video card from Aja or Blackmagic Design, Final Cut Studio and some supporting software for around $25,000. That system will do everything up to and including HD post-production for broadcast or film. Or, for Little TV, that same producer could put together a system with a 20” 2.1GHz G5 iMac, 2.5GB of RAM, 500GB of hard disk space and Final Cut Studio, for around $3,600. That system will do everything a producer needs for Little TV, but if even $3,600 is too much, there’s always the same Mac with 1.5GB of RAM, 250GB of hard disk space and iMovie for under two grand.

Let’s review: Versus Big TV, Little TV is cheaper and easier to produce, cheaper to distribute, and is available anywhere, any time. With all these advantages, it’s no wonder that Little TV is growing much faster than Big TV. Feedburner counts almost 23,000 unique podcast channels. The number of videocasts is currently a small fraction of the podcast count, but the number will grow quickly as production and distribution tools become easier to use.

The comparison between Big TV and Little TV reminds me of what happened with MP3 came on the scene. The record labels were pushing the next generation of audio reproduction: SACD and DVD-Audio (“Big Audio”). Both systems required a big investment in new speakers and amplifiers, not to mention new versions of many of the CDs that listeners already owned, in order to take full advantage of their quality.  On the Little Audio side was MP3. It didn’t sound as good as Big Audio, and it didn’t have 5.1 channels, but it was far more convenient (thanks to portable players,) and thanks to Napster and its ilk, it offered a huge library of music for free. The Big Audio folks ignored Little Audio until it just about killed them.

The same thing is happening with Big TV vs. Little TV. Big TV advocates are pushing for high-definition disc systems (Blu-Ray and HD DVD,) which require a big investment in better HD monitors, new blue-laser players and new versions of many of the DVDs that viewers already own, in order to take full advantage of their quality. On the other hand, Little TV will play on many of the cellphones that people already own, Sony’s PSP game system, the new iPod and other portable video players. Enterprising computer programmers have already figured out how to get DVDs, television shows and videocast material to play on Little TV players. Little TV is far more convenient, and there’s a huge library of programs for free. Déjà vu, anyone?

Big TV advocates think that a video iPod will never compete with a HD system with surround sound and Blu-Ray. They’re wrong. Picture and audio quality are not the purchasing drivers. If they were, it wouldn’t have taken an act of Congress to force consumers to buy digital television receivers. No, what’s driving consumers is convenience and cost. When you can buy everything you need to watch Little TV for $299, and it’s far more convenient and much cheaper than Big TV, the decision is a no-brainer.

If you’re a Big TV producer or distributor: A television or cable network, television station or cable operator, you should be scared by Little TV, but you have a chance of avoiding the music industry’s quagmire by adapting to Little TV rather than ignoring it or trying to kill it. You can’t kill it, any more than newspapers killed radio or radio killed television. In Darwinian terms, adapt or die.    
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