The family television spent decades at the center of many households. It fed us news, sports, entertainment and a seemingly endless stream of commercials (well, unless you were watching the Beeb). Forty years ago, there were only a handful of channels and viewers had their weekly viewing habits mapped out with military precision. Broadcasters could count on millions of eyes, simply because there was little competition. But modern technology is threatening the traditional TV model from all sides, and it's only a matter of time before video streaming becomes the norm.
The television universe slowly began to unravel with the arrival of cable and satellite. Viewers were faced with dozens or even hundreds of choices as boutique channels sprouted like weeds. A sci-fi gardening network? I'm sure someone pitched it at some point in the 1990s.
The emergence of the Internet further muddied things, as pundits argued that the world wide web would supplant TV virtually overnight. It didn't happen, but viewership slid a bit as people turned their attention to web pages dedicated to sci-fi gardening and honed their fragging skills on ever more sophisticated video game consoles.
However, it looks like the writing is finally on the wall in 2010.
The arrival of affordable streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu, along with a plethora of IP-TV devices such as Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee and the Roku player may signal the end, as soon as broadcasters can solve one gnawing issue -- money.
Like it or not, streaming TV is the future. The only issue is who is going to pay for it (hint: you) and how they're going to pay. In the first wave of the streaming revolution, shows piped from Apple or Netflix don't include ads. Instead, these new services choose to dip directly into your pockets, bypassing the Mad Men and the toothpaste companies. To a certain extent, it works.
The problem is that online viewing numbers aren't large enough to fund elaborate shows, so the system is still reliant on traditional broadcasters to provide first run financing. Anyone who watches more than a couple of hours of TV a week is going to balk at the idea of spending 99 cents (or more) per show.
The solution, I fear, will be a hybrid of the old and new broadcast models. Someone's eventually going to realize that streaming video services can pinpoint your location within a block or two based on your IP address. Armed with that information, marketers will be able to target ads to you in a manner that was impossible in the broadcast age -- and you'll be blissfully unaware that you're enduring a different set of commercials than the folks in the fancy houses a quarter mile away.
The big question is whether the traditional networks will be at the helm of this new attack on the living room, or whether it will be the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Netflix.