Richard Tomkins: Soviet-style control of TV must end

By Richard Tomkins

Financial Times

Published: November 22 2005

So, some of the big US television networks are to start letting people download popular television programmes after they have aired. Devotees of forensic dramas with colons in the titles will be able to catch up on episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at 99 cents a pop provided they have access to the right cable or satellite service.

All I can say is, about time.

In fact, that is not strictly true; if it were all I could say, this column would already have ended. But it really is about time. To me it just beggars belief that, well into the 21st century and years after the beginning of the digital revolution, the schedules are still dictating what television shows people may watch and when they may see them. It is as if the only tunes you could listen to on your iPod were those chosen by Steve Jobs, and you were only allowed to listen to them at the times he decreed.

Of course, I hardly ever watch television. I just want to make that clear at the outset in case you should slip into thinking I am some sort of sad loner with no friends and no life whose only solace and comfort is the box in the corner.

I do, however, find myself watching television at weekends when, now I think of it, most other people are out socialising, partying and generally enjoying the warmth of human companionship. And the main reason I can find anything worth watching at this curiously barren point in the schedules is that my TiVo digital video recorder stockpiles the shows I am interested in during the week and presents me with an iPod-style personal selection of programmes at the weekend from which I can construct my own schedule.

Still, it is not enough. Once you have had this tantalising taste of control, you begin to wonder what is stopping you having more. Why do we have to wait for programmes to be broadcast before we can view or record them? Given broadband access, a cable connection or a satellite link, along with a readiness to pay, why can we not watch any programme that has ever been made whenever we want to, or any film, much as the iPod owner can download at will any one of literally millions of tunes?

And now you have got me started, why is the technology of home entertainment so lamentably bad? I do not even have home cinema, cable television or a satellite link; yet, with the separate hi-fi components, the VCR, the DVD player, the TiVo, two digital set-top boxes and the television itself – wired up, I should add, with enough cabling to support the Tacoma Narrows Bridge – I need no fewer than nine remote controls to operate all the equipment in my living room and I still cannot watch what I want.

Somehow, I do not think this would be happening if Procter & Gamble were in the home entertainment industry. But that is the difference between consumer goods companies and technology companies. P&G, which has been around long enough to understand what being market-led means, goes and researches consumer needs, finds out what would make people’s lives better and then sets about making it at an attractive price.

But technology companies tend to make things because they can, thrusting products and services on to the market regardless of whether anyone has expressed a desire for them. As a result, some products and services fall flat because they are too expensive or hardly anyone wants them (Sinclair C5, laserdiscs, Boo.com) while people’s real needs go unsatisfied (where’s my jet pack?).

In the unlikely event that any technology company is interested, here is what I need. I need a screen, some wireless loudspeakers and a personal computer with an amplifier inside. The idea is, any time I want to listen to a piece of music, I just download it to the PC and play it. Any time I want to watch a television programme or a film, I just download it and play it. It really is that simple.

Any questions? Yes, it would be nice to be able to hook up record players or VCRs to the system to play material in old formats, but there is probably no need because almost everything except home videos and the like is (in my dreams) available online. Yes, the PC acts like a TiVo, automatically recording my favourite shows to its hard drive if I want it to. And yes, I can also use it like an iPod, using it to store my favourite tunes.

How do I know what shows are available? Just as I do now. Television does not die; it makes money as much from programme downloads as from advertising, but programmes continue to be shown on a daily schedule and the listings continue to appear. After all, some people will still want to see shows at the earliest possible opportunity; others may want to remain passive viewers, just watching whatever is on; and most people will want to go on watching news, sport and live events in real time.

In truth, I am probably being a bit unfair on technology companies. After all, the Windows Media Centre, though expensive and still too much of a geek thing, is on the right track. The finger of suspicion might more properly be pointed at media owners, content providers and advertisers, who seem terrified of upsetting their existing financial models and entrenched relationships.

It is such cowardice. Come on, guys! No one ever went broke satisfying consumer demand. (The hell with the truth. This is rhetoric.) I thought controlled distribution went out with Soviet Union. If it is legal and we are ready to pay for it, why on earth can we not have what we want?