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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Living in the Age of Disruption - Television

The show was named "Superstars of Soccer" and if my memory serves me right, it aired at 10 PM. I don't quite remember if it was sometime before 1990 World Cup in Italy or the next one but have a feeling that it was the former. My dad was a huge soccer fan and had gotten me to watch the sport (basically only the World Cup). A one hour show packed with clips of the Johan Cruyffs and Maradonas and Zicos scoring goals was enough the capture the imagination of an eight year old. What I vividly remember about the series is that we would often rush back from a family friend's house so as to be able to watch it uninterrupted at home. Bring dinner to the living room table and see spectacular goals being scored. 

And now we have YouTube. So much for instant gratification.

One Show. One Time.

Like any kid born in the 80s in India, Doordarshan was my introduction to television. And apart from Ramayan and Mahabharat, the only thing I remember are the Spiderman and He-Man cartoons. There were hardly any sports (or I was too small to care) and watching TV was more often than not dictated by the program which was being aired at that time of the day. Which essentially meant you picked your shows and adjusted your life around it. If you missed it, it was gone. Forever. And you asked your friends about it and replayed it in your mind. 

More Channels. More Movies.

The big change sometime in the 90s was cable TV. Suddenly you had this thing called "options". A dozen channels. Actually, I think there were more but our TV only had so many channels. So you had to pick favorites. Zee TV, Star TV, BBC World, MTV (they played music back then) and a few other channels almost immediately changed our TV viewing behavior. The concept of channel surfing came into being. There was this air of unpredictability. Let's turn on the TV and see what's on. I would do that with my mom in the evening before dad came back from work. We didnt have channel guides and often weekend editions of newspapers would have all the TV listings. I remember spending a good 10-15 minutes to make sure I had all my action movies covered. To add to the entertainment portfolio, my dad got us a VCR. Still remember the first day trying to set it up. Took us the entire evening. Compared to today's interfaces, that was almost command line like in its demeanor. The advent of VCPs and VCRs (which could also be rented) opened up this whole "Video Parlor" business - shops which would stock copies of Indian and Hollywood movies and rent them out. Nobody I knew "bought" video cassettes. It was way too costly. One particular guy at one of these shops was an avid movie watcher and introduced us to classics like The Gods Must Be Crazy and Dances with the Wolves. We would spend hours at his shop browsing through the library and chit chatting about the movies he had watched. It was one of the more memorable outings that I used to have as a teenager. The quality would often be sub par, though. Sometimes it was bearable. Just a glitch here and there. On the rare occasion, we would have to return it to the shop without being able to watch it. It was normal. A little depressing but absolutely normal. Cassettes get damaged. It was the way things are supposed to work.

The R in the VCR meant that we could record stuff too. And the one we had was powerful enough so that we could set timers to turn on the TV and record stuff even when we were away! Pretty cool, right? We never figured out how to do it. Nevertheless, we did record some live stuff. The 1994 World Cup Soccer Final, for instance. I never watched it afterwards. Roberto Baggio was my hero and it broke my heart to think about that final.

Whatever. Whenever.

Fast forward to the 2000s. The channels increased to over a hundred and the TVs became more powerful but essentially the model remained the same. You had a cable provider (and may be a set top box). CD/DVD players replaced VCRs. Although people had started to buy CDs. They were cheaper and lasted a lot longer. So yes, we are moving from a rent-only mentality to a buy-really-good-movies one. Or buy-cheap-pirated knock offs. I, for my part had moved to college and discovered the power of the internet and P2P file sharing software.

Terabytes of videos. DVD quality. And Free. Beat that!
I perfectly blended into this free model as everything from the latest American sitcoms to the Kurosawa movies were suddenly a click away. Watching as much of the the IMdB Top 250 as possible almost became a fashion statement of sorts. Not that I knew the term then, but this was "Time Shifting" at its pinnacle. You could always watch movies later. The whole Video Cassette followed by CD/DVD industry was built on this premise. That people would want to and should be able to watch any movie any time. Not just when it played in the theaters. But before I went to college, I didn't know that this happened for TV as well. So now, no matter when the 1st season of FRIENDS aired, I  could download it from the LAN and watch it as many times as I wanted to. It was fascinating. 

What began in college continued in Bangalore too. I missed the LAN but still had a hold on LOST and How I Met Your Mother. Bit Torrent to the rescue. I couldn't imagine people paying for content when piracy was so rampant. And so easy. And nobody ever got caught. And thus, "owning" became the default. First I would burn movies into CDs. But then as storage became cheap and 500 GB external HDDs became pocket sized, it became the norm. Download entire seasons and keep them in your hard drive. Not a penny expended. Technology changing consumer behavior. Ah! now, I get it. Thanks to my MBA!

TV meets Internet & I start paying.

The last bit of this story brings us to my life in present day America. I spent the first two years in this country in school which meant there wasn't time to really watch any TV. There were way more interesting things going on. As a result I stopped downloading stuff. Still, buying digital content was an uncomfortable notion for me. Years of access to free, hi-def videos had had its impact. But then there was the question of ease and any time access. Add a hi speed internet connection and a relatively cheap fee to the mix, and I began to realize why I would finally be ok with paying for content. So I got my internet enabled TV with a built in Hulu and Netflix app and access to a couple of other on demand movie stores. Renting  or streaming at a monthly subscription is still a lot cheaper than buying. And I found myself moving from the owning-for-free to the paying-for-rent mentality. A full circle, in some ways.

So much has changed. From the devices themselves to the way content is distributed to the way it is consumed and the way people relate to it and react to it. From a one time only event, most of Television today is available almost immediately after it is first screened. Hulu has made a name out of the concept of "Second Day TV" (making popular shows available for streaming a day after they are aired). It's even more fascinating for me because I work in an industry which is so intricately linked to all of this.We expect instant streaming at hi qualities and are annoyed by the slightest glitch or delay in playback. Things are so easy now. And will get easier in the future. And our options will explode. TV would soon move into (it has already started) handheld devices. It would become more interactive. If you follow this space as closely as I do, you would be aware of how it's being billed as the last domain ripe for digital disruption. And I thought so much has already changed !

Enough of writing about TV. Time to catch some Arrested Development on Netflix!

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