“Application separation” threatens TV

Michael PowellIn 2003, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell made a statement while visiting students at Stanford that I’ve quoted often here. “Application separation,” he said, “is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever.” He was talking about the ability to separate the package from the infrastructure that delivers the package.

In the world of code, XML does that by separating the content from the way it’s displayed. This allows the mixing of different forms of content and the transportation of content absent formatting. It has changed things forever.

But in the real — non-code — world, we’re separating things, too. This is what happened with the music industry. Technology allowed the separation of cuts from albums, and the digital music world was born. TiVo did the same thing with television. People could separate their favorite shows from the source and watch them when they wanted.

And now Google TV threatens to institutionalize that separation, much to the chagrin of broadcasters, cable companies and even Hollywood. They fear the same thing that happened to the music industry.

Chairman Powell, during that same meeting, also expressed a certain reality about those disrupted by “application separation.“I have no problem,” he said, “if a big and venerable company no longer exists tomorrow, as long as that value is transferred somewhere else in the economy.”

Sound like what’s taking place today?

Google TV makes no bones about wanting to separate programs from their sources and provide end users with simple, search-based access to the programs they want. According to an article in the Wall St. Journal, this is not sitting so well with some broadcasters, and it’s easy to understand why.

The Google software aims to play any video that runs anywhere on the Web, from clips on YouTube to full-length TV episodes that media companies distribute on their own sites. That open pipe has some media companies worried that their content will get lost amid a range of Web content, including pirated clips, according to people familiar with the matter.

Google’s push could backfire: Some media companies are discussing whether they should take steps to block their Web video from playing on certain devices, which is technically possible.

Blocking, however, would be foolish, for people WILL have what they want, and this is the problem with all disruptive innovations. The only issue is how difficult it might be for Google to sell the public on another set-top box or another expensive piece of hardware in order to experience the new world.

I think it’s a foregone conclusion that people will view television this way downstream, and that the best broadcasters, cable companies and studios can do is slow it down. TV has an advantage over what the music industry faced, because we can actually see it coming. It won’t change the outcome, however, for we’ve long ago entered the age of empowered consumers. People already watch “programs,” not channels, so “application separation” is already underway, just as it was for music.

Better than fighting, it seems to me, would be to spend some time innovating ways to move supportive ads to a VOD environment, or to be the one who offers the searchable (local) channel of video advertising and coupons. The old adage is that for every 100 people who see a commercial, perhaps one or two want more information. That’s the market for video-on-demand from the marketplace.

In the end, though, we must once again face what Mr. Powell so perfectly described eight years ago and realize that the world that supports media is changing, whether we want it to or not.


  1. invitedmedia says

    ya’ gotta love when youtube gets a takedown notice- they publicly shame the company that issued it.

    case point: the raycom takedown of antoine dodson (damn, i couldn’t remember the brother’s name, but typed the first few letters of his first and google completed the rest)

    talk about shooting yourself in both feet.


  1. […] — like Google TV — disrupts local television by separating content from its source. As I wrote when Google TV was announced, this will not be good in the long run for the broadcasting […]

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