Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where is that remote?

Originally written summer of 2010, for my dad:

I was reminded recently that the current state of affairs for licensing of video content on the "airwaves" or the "tubes" is all a mess. I didn't come to this conclusion lightly, I have actually been trying to study it and finding information is quite hard to come by. You see, there is a portion of people that are involved with this who don't want the public to know what's going on because what's in place is "working", and then there is a portion who don't care, they simply want to throw out the old and put in the new "everything should be free" model. Is one better than the other? This is really hard to say, partly because today's model is fundamentally broken. But let's step back…

In the beginning of what we might call "Content Providers 101" there were the networks, those companies which came after the invention of a form of technology, radio at first and eventually TV's and Movies. In America, these companies were licensed by the federal government and given a charter or a "public trust" to use the "airwaves" wisely. They created some studios or at least got into bed with production companies that owned studios and then the radio show was born. The TV shows soon followed, when that technology finally became viable. In both of these forms, the radio show or the TV show, all of this was paid for by an advertiser who subsidized the creation of the show itself with money to the studio or production company and in turn the show itself was broken into pieces with commercials in-between those pieces of the show.

Perhaps (as was with radio) the announcer himself (because it primarily was a guy, in those days) would "talk" about the advertiser's product, and that led to an interesting style of merging of the two, where the show itself would transition into the commercial and then even back to the show, and it was hard to see where the commercial was. The old Paul Harvey radio shows, which are still going, have their "And now, Page 2" signature line to indicate where the commercial was over. Even in today's form of radio, there still are forms of this style and the best example of this is Leo Laporte's "This Week in Tech" series of podcasts. A podcast, by the way, is just a form of a recorded radio show, but deferred. You don't have to listen to it live, you can listen to it many days or weeks afterwards. Leo does this particularly well, with his commercials for Audible, the audio book company, especially when his guests on these shows get into the act and do their own variant of the product testimonial.

Television didn't follow this model so much, in that the commercials are almost always separately produced. The traditional model has been that a "commercial" or an advertisement (Ad) would have it's own time slot within the content of the show. The Alfred Hitchcock shows did this particularly well, with his dry "and now a word from our sponsor" lead in to the Ad itself. The Ad was separate from the TV show. There are exceptions coming on air now, of course, where the show's actors become the principals in the commercial.

The TV Commercial industry sometimes has its own production and studio entities. If you look anywhere on the intertubes, you will find millions of references to the TV Commercial, you can watch some of the popular ones; from the Superbowl, to the funny ones, the classics, even lists of songs used in commercials. These lists and variations are extensive. My Dad, my Grandpa and I would be fishing sometimes with the radio or sitting at home and watching the TV, and when those commercials would come up, well it was time for a break to get something from the kitchen or something to use that remote for (after Space Command made TV watching totally different). When we were out in the boat, it was a moment to talk, since you were not supposed to talk (it scared the fish) and it distracted you from the baseball game (that great American pastime) as that was what you should be listening to. This concept of channel surfing wasn't even an option when I grew up… there was only one station.

In 1966, I remember having to go across the street to my grandmother's house to watch Star Trek (TOS – The Original Series, as it's now known as) because she could get NBC (she had an extra antenna) and at our house, we couldn't. About this time, I was 13 years old, I started to wonder about these commercials. Sure, you had to buy the TV, and soon after black and white came color television, but I often wondered who is paying for the program itself? There wasn't an Internet in those days, no Wikipedia… no place to go to look up things other than your Encyclopedia Britannica or the local library and nothing was in either place about this stuff. Later on, there were more channels, on something that was called UHF and I found that this acronym meant Ultra-High Frequency, but there wasn't anyone around to explain such things. I did understand radio a little bit, my Dad had given me a transistor radio when I was young and I sure did study this thing. I took it apart and I put it back together again, time and time again. My Dad had no electronics background, so I couldn't really get any help from him. He was a WW2 army recruit, served in Italy, but he was in charge of the POWs, while others may have been learning about radar or electronics or the kind of soldiering we associate with the army, e.g. combat. Plumbing and painting/varnishing and refinishing was his profession as I was growing up.

I tried to talk to the local TV repair guy in town about how this transistor stuff worked versus the vacuum tubes, but he was kind of cold and what was this kid, asking all of these questions… I could not find much information about my radio in the encyclopedia or anywhere else, so other than understanding that tubes were replaced by transistors, I couldn't figure much more than that. There was no internet, no Wikipedia. We had an encyclopedia (World Book, I think) but it had nothing about this stuff, it was too new.

Of course, this shift from analog to digital electronics was really a big deal. Not too long after this I remember seeing and then actually owning (WOW) a digital watch with the little numbers that glowed red. I couldn't really take this watch apart, I didn't have the tools for it, and I would have probably destroyed it if I tried, which is not how one acted when I grew up, you needed to take care of your things. In my off time, I used to help out my Dad at the hardware store that my uncle and he owned. I would clean the store and sell things to customers, I knew how to mix paint colors by hand (something that has also gone the way of history), I could sweep out the store in the early winter mornings with snow, believe it or not, as something to catch the dirt. It was always cold in there, with only residual heat from the day before and it was the only time you could do that, because if it got too warm, the snow would melt and then you just had a wet mess of dirt and stuff and not a clean floor. When I was younger I would play in these huge appliance boxes that the washers and dryers came it, my Dad and my Uncle sold these and other things you think of for as hardware store. A bunch of these boxes, taped together… you have an instant fort. These were fun and simpler times.

We had a radio (tubes) at the store and my Grandpa and I would listen to the ballgame when there was a game on. Small town America didn't offer other kinds of diversions, I was too young to own a car and too old to just play with toys. The movie theater shut down about the time I was 10 years old. Sometimes I would write stories, but I don't know where any of them went, and I would draw, but mostly I would draw electrical circuits, because I had seen them on the appliances and I wanted to control things, lights mostly, as well. I learned how to do this from a basic electricity book that my school library had. Nothing digital, of course, in something like this, but it did spark an interest in me. I am sure I drove my Dad bonkers, especially in my late high school years when, after having built my own stereo components (from a Dynaco kit) I thought he and Mom should also have a "real" Stereo system. Nothing like having more lifelike sound for listening to music; that's what I thought. We were in the middle of building a new house, but now I am sure my Dad was much more focused on the house. He and Mom had put a bid on an old house in town; it was sort of abandoned. The taxes weren't getting paid, but for some very small amount of money, he was able to buy this house, which he subsequently paid to have leveled to the ground. My folks come up with their own design, I'm not sure if it was a purchased set of plans or if they had hired an architect to come up with it, but the building fit the building lot, which sloped from a high point near the street to a lower point at the back of the lot, where the alley was. This split level house was a marvel to me and I just had to leave my own impression on it, and the stereo was going to be it. I purchased the speakers for the den and mounted them myself in the ceiling, ran the wires, and put those wires through the floorboards, to the next floor where the new stereo would sit on some kind of furniture. I think I deferred to both of them as to what kind of furniture it would be, but I do remember given them lots of pictures to look at, from the Sears Roebuck catalog. I was even going to build this in shop class, in my last year of high school, but something must have deterred me, because it never got built, and the new stereo finally resided in a more traditional form of furniture, an end-table, I think.

The ceiling was to be later covered over (except for the holes for the speaker itself) with ceiling tiles. I think I put up most of those ceiling tiles myself, stapling them to evenly spaced strips of wood. I had more speakers in the ceiling of my bedroom, which was on the 2nd floor. I remember my Dad put his foot down with regards to my plans to create a built in stereo component system in this bedroom, "we're just going to have paneling in here" – and in the end, this was ok, as my plans were pretty half-baked.

Anyway, thinking about bugging my Dad, I had done similar things down at the hardware store, where I had different strings running to the string pulls of the different light bulbs in the store. They were hanging from a very old 2 wire kind of electrical wiring system. You could actually see the two wires running along the ceiling, one on one side of the base the other on the other side, the base then ran two wires down to the light bulb socket itself, perhaps 3-4 feet lower (the store had tall ceilings) and all of these were in a parallel circuit, another circuit I had faithfully drawn in my journal.

I was amazed by all of these things on the TV, however, the Star Trek show, the Lost in Space series (I can see remember, Robbie the Robot saying "Danger Danger, Will Robinson"). I used to dream of being in a space ship and I also remember drawing another picture of plans for how living quarters would be laid out on a circular space ship, a flying saucer, much as the Robinson's craft was. They had such great gadgets. I used to wonder how advertising could pay for all of the TV shows. I had an inkling of how much this stuff should have cost, after all, I was selling fuses and circuit breakers and even small appliances to customers of the store. There was plumbing fixtures and glass for windows and paint and tinted paint. I don't think I have ever thanked my father for letting me work in the store with Grandpa, it was probably the most valuable teaching lessons I could have gotten from my boyhood experiences … the value of things. But as I say, I could start to imagine the scale that a movie or a TV series would have for costs. When I was old enough, I had actual jobs getting paid actual money and I started to understand the cost of labor and then I could really imagine the scale of these costs the production companies would pay.

Toward the end of my high school years, computers were really out in a big way. The government was of course using them all over the place. There was a moon landing in 1969 and all throughout the 60's there was all of this space race activity, with Mercury, Gemini, and then the Apollo missions. Like just about every other kid at this time, I devoured every scrap of information I could. Sure, I wanted to be an astronaut, like the other kids, but I was also interested in how this stuff all worked. By the time my junior year was done, I was looking at newspaper want ads for jobs that computer programmers could have. It seemed like extraordinary amounts of money, in some cases $20,000 per year! One guy at the hardware store told me that I would never make that kind of money, that it was insane to pay someone so much money.

My Dad couldn't help me much with this, his experiences were in the plumbing and refinishing (painting and woodworking) industry. The hardware store was interesting as a place to work and it allowed my Dad and my uncle to store stuff and stage products (like the appliances). But I don't think it made as much money as either of them would have liked. I don't think they ever paid my Grandfather anything for "minding the store" while they were out in the field, installing a furnace or water heater, I think Grandpa would have refused to accept any money anyway. It was something for him to do after he retired. And we didn't think twice - if the fishing bug struck Grandpa, we closed the store and off we went to the lake, often to just fish by the store.

In college, I had access to better information, of course, and by the time I had gone through my first year of General Ed classes and realized that my chosen, "safe" major of Nuclear Physics, was probably going to be a dead end (the industry didn't have that great of a track record, even then) I had found the Computer Science department and a fledgling department with one of the first ever Computer Science degree programs, I realized I could actually achieve this computer career and have a good paying job. Besides, when I talked to the department head, he practically begged me to get into the program AND help out in the computer science lab because it was so hard to find anyone to staff things, this early on. In a short while, I was a lab assistant, helping students find their ways through bugs in their Basic, Fortran and Cobol programs.

Meanwhile, this Radio, TV, and Movie industry was plugging along another 20 years until something amazing happened. The Internet! All of a sudden, you could get access to (in the beginning) written material on lots of stuff, mostly from universities. The early Dial-Up connections were not sufficient to get the next wave of content to show up, the audio or video stuff we are more familiar with now. But clearly, this advertising model was something that people were looking at, especially once you got by the companies that were total shams, highly speculative financed ideas of how the internet could be used for this, that, and the other thing. I remember telling my wife, who told her Mom, that you could shop for brooms and household stuff on the internet (think WebVan). And her Mom told my wife she was crazy, no one would buy things that way.

While true for some things, like household items, lots of other goods are actually cheaper via the internet channel than any other way. The old school media firms, like the TV networks and the Movie studios where getting a little worried, however. This has led to our current state of affairs where content is largely licensed and the terms of those licenses are what dictates what you can do or what you can consume. My Dad, now, who while quite old in human terms, is still a major baseball fan, particularly with his favorite team, the Minnesota Twins. But those games are not always televised where he lives. The reason for this is the licensing terms. The community he lives in is pretty rural, and while there is a cable company in town they are quite small and they can't afford a line-up like you might have in a larger city, such as were I live. I might have 85 some channels as part of my basic cable package, but Dad and Mom only has about 20. If the Twins are not being broadcast, chances are he can't watch them.

My sister invited us out to her place, where she has a satellite dish for her TV, and we watched a game out there, via the dish. The Twins were not being shown on the channels that he has in this house. My sister and I were then talking about how to get him the same channels that she had in her Dish TV package, but in the cable TV package that the folks had. But there is the cost issue, complexity (cable box is on the ground floor) for the rest of the TV's that they have, that will introduce confusion (what channel is that on, new remotes, etc.). Since I am experimenting with XBox Media Center (XBMC) and Boxee , I thought for a moment about this avenue (streaming television content). Maybe for about 10 seconds, but no – more confusion for them – especially when all you want is to turn on the TV and see TV.

I was also thinking about recording stuff at my house, and streaming to their TV. But, any kind of broadcast that you record (such what you do with your home PVR or DVR) is probably illegal to recording it in one place and then view it in a different household. Remember all of the hullabaloo over VCR tapes from 15-20 years ago?

In the end, Broadcast TV or Cable TV, where the advertisers pay for everything and the customer has a monthly fee – it's just simpler. Internet streaming has a longer term business opportunity, but one that will continue to be complex as the content owners set the rules for the sale of the replay of their content. The cable and broadcast players have most of these deals in place. I'm not saying they shouldn't be allowed to continue to do this, but the "deals" they work up with the various networks is truly the most complex stuff on the face of the earth. Nuclear physics pales in comparison… I tried to watch an episode of a TV series that I missed on my homemade recorder. Something had happened to the computer that I use for this, and the show didn't get recorded. No problem, I think, let me watch it on "Hulu"… only it was now about 3 weeks since that particular episode had aired, and when I browsed to the place on Hulu to watch it, it wasn't available. A little further reading revealed that Hulu could only "broadcast" this for 5 days after the show airs, after that, it's pulled down. Now, what's the sense in that? If I watch it 5 years after it's broadcast, the show can be still be supported by the advertizing model (with then current ads) in Hulu, even if it's only watched once in a while.

Note, I wrote the word "broadcast" instead of "stream" because from the user's point of view, there isn't really much difference. Sure, the stream might be able to be paused, and broadcast cannot, but the basics of the arm chair or couch viewing experience are largely the same. When we say "stream" the vision of a computer and it's screen is what people usually think, but this is not necessarily the case.

Similarly, now, there are streaming sports pieces of content showing up in other places than the TV; VerizonWireless recently launched an NFL "app" which allows some games to be streamed to the smaller mobile phone screen. Usually, sports is only seen in the broadcast, cable and satellite forms of distribution. And now, we're full circle back to my Dad, and his favorite Minnesota Twins.

Will he see a world where you "tap" into a feed or launch an "app" and watch the game on his favorite device? Perhaps not… Partly because we're not there yet from a licensing point of view (I don't think technology is the problem any longer), and partly because there is a generational thing. Certainly if a new TV came out, and he bought it because his old TV was broken AND the TV had a simple to use method (like changing channels on a remote) to select the "game" to watch it…

I will certainly see this kind of capability and my kids will as well. But for him, growing up, major league baseball was on the radio and when he was finishing up on his 3rd decade, broadcast TV finally was getting there where he could watch it. But, it took a few more years, because we lived in a rural part of the United States, and … well, it just took longer.

But, this mobile phone and internet stuff, it's mostly beyond him. And as long as broadcast/cable TV is there, that's just fine with him. If "internet" comes into my folks house, it will be because I need it there when I'm staying with them, but this is really unlikely, because for the most part, I already have mobile internet on my phone or in my laptop. 

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