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September 23, 2011 3:18 pm

Box clever: The future of television

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This is not the future of television: you sit on the sofa, reach for the remote control and press the “on” button. Up pops a picture of your doctor’s receptionist.

“Oh, hello. The doctor will see you now,” she says. In a flash, the consultant is on the screen and telling you the good news from your follow-up test results, asking a few pertinent questions about your current condition and, if necessary, inspecting your operation scar as you pull up your shirt in front of the high-definition webcam on top of the set.

This is actually the present. In a small experiment on the south coast of England, doctors are already “seeing” patients in their own living rooms on a daily basis. And it works. Patients are responding positively to the experience, due to the convenience and the fact that they would rather discuss personal information from the comfort of their own home than in a surgery. Doctors have reported that they are able to get more information out of live-video consultations, because patients tend to feel more relaxed and are markedly less likely to exaggerate or play down their symptoms.

Of course, only a handful of doctors have the technology to do this. But the development is a portent of the future of the ubiquitous TV in the corner of our living rooms. By 2015, 10m sets in the UK’s 27m homes will be connected to the internet. Worldwide, the number is expected to hit 500m by the end of the decade. The prospects of so-called connected TV make television executives both tremble and salivate.

At a recent conference of the Royal Television Society, the audience were asked a simple question: is connected TV our friend, or is it going to kill us? The response from Gerhard Zeiler, chief executive of RTL, the pan-European broadcaster, was that he does not feel threatened – yet. “A lot of people who own connected TVs now will not connect them for a while and we will still be in a world where a normal user is watching only 7-10 favourite channels, even in a multichannel world. For at least 10 years, people will be using TV mostly as they do now.”

Yet the menu of what is available on connected TV is growing. Google TV, for instance, is a platform for channels and commercial apps that places itself between the broadcaster and the viewer. It is currently only available in the US, but is likely to arrive in the UK in 2012.

In this service, a straightforward subscription television channel such as HBO sits alongside an app for Billabong, the clothing brand, featuring lifestyle and fashion videos aimed at fans of the brand. Operated from the sofa with a wi-fi keyboard or an Android-based mobile phone, it promises to turn your TV into a 50-inch tablet computer.

Connected TV is also available to more and more people through cable services.

Virgin Media’s adaptation of TiVo, the US digital video recording system, allows viewers to surf the internet for clips from YouTube, the online video site, but also to search for information from selected websites that give you background information on the programme you are watching.

If you like a particular actor or director, for instance, you simply enter their name into the TiVo search engine and it will link you to other programmes available on demand or via a website that feature that person’s work.

Virgin Media is agnostic about whose programming makes it on to their customers’ screens, as long as it is suitable and legal. “We see TiVo as a platform to which people can publish,” says Andrew Barron, chief operating officer of the UK cable group.

Other platforms already taken for granted by teenagers – the remote-control owners of tomorrow – are games consoles, with both the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox acting as interfaces for viewing video.

And while you would expect pay-TV companies to pursue this line of revenue, in Europe free-to-air companies seem to be struggling to keep up.

In the UK, the answer to connected TV for the public-service BBC and Channel 4, as well as free-to-air commercial broadcasters, is YouView, which will finally launch, after many delays, in early 2012.

“We are trying to present something that is subscription free and open to as wide a range of people as possible. But we are still at the starting blocks, not the finishing line,” Richard Halton, chief executive of YouView, told the RTS audience. “What we want to do is put as little as possible between the broadcaster and the viewer [and] let the broadcaster capture the customer data available via the internet because it allows them to build a better relationship with the viewer.”

That direct link between audience and TV – the so-called return path – is an exciting prospect for companies that have traditionally made money from pushing advertisements to a largely unresponsive audience.

“Data usage and targeted advertising will allow the television industry to repackage itself for new revenue streams,” Mr Halton says. “It should be like when the music industry discovered that live concerts were where the money was as CD revenue declined.”

Mr Barron believes the future is closer than even many industry executives realise. “We all know that this will be a bit like colour TV, or more recently, HD television. At some stage in our children’s lives they will take for granted that they will have a choice of viewing methods – some live TV, but much of it not taken from an EPG [electronic programme guide] at all – and a way to navigate them.”

In fact, he adds, they found that in the first tranche of early-adopting TiVo viewers, 25 per cent of viewing was not via the EPG, but from video on demand, catch-up or from external websites. A sure sign, Mr Barron says, that the future is with us now.

John McVay, chief executive of Pact, the independent producers’ body, agrees the pace of change is accelerating. “When today’s 15-year-olds become 20-year-olds, we will be having a completely different discussion,” he says.

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