We have been talking about radical changes in the way we watch for TV for almost a decade now.
And a lot of it has been wrong. Remember the buzz three years ago as to how 3-D was going to be in every home?
Newsflash: ESPN announced last week that it would be shutting down its 3-D channel by the end of the year because the audience, if there is one, is too small to be measured by Nielsen.
But for all the hype and all the "next big things" that have flashed across the screen and died small, it really does feel like the revolution in TV viewing has arrived.
You might not have been one of 3 million new subscribers who signed up with Netflix in February to watch the Baltimore-made "House of Cards" drama with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. But it was hard not to hear about the political thriller and the way some viewers took binge viewing to a new level, wolfing down all 13 hourlong episodes in one straight Friday-night-Saturday-morning shot when the series dropped.
Same story for "Arrested Development" when it was resurrected last month, though reviews were mixed. But even in the split over whether "Arrested Development" was a hit, there's more evidence of how revolutionary and swift the change in TV viewing has become: We don't yet even know how to measure success for such streamed presentations.
"The revolution in the way we watch television is definitely here," says Paul Levinson, author of the 2012 book "New New Media." "We see it in content specifically designed not to be on network or cable — like'‘House of Cards.' We see it in ever more risky shows on cable like 'Rectify' and 'The Following' and 'Da Vinci's Demons.'
"But most of all, we see it in the hardware that each of us carries with us every day — a smartphone or a tablet, which proclaims we can watch a television show whenever we want to, on our schedule and nobody's else's."
Reacting to that change and an expanding army of competitors, Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable provider, will on Monday start offering its new Triple Play subscribers in Baltimore an operating platform known as X1. It's the start of a campaign by the giant cable company to become the media hub in Maryland homes — the operator of the box through which all entertainment streams in a family’s media life will flow.
Comcast has a leg up on the competition in this region based on owning the cable line into many area homes — and now, the online connection. But it needs to give viewers more and better reasons for staying onboard as the competition from Apple TV, Roku, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 intensifies to be the new, best media-box friend of American viewers.
One of the first things viewers will notice, according to Comcast, is the change in design and ease of access to features like On Demand.
Now, the service is text-oriented and requires you to ponderously search through networks, genres, series titles, seasons and episodes in an old-media, linear manner. Comcast promises X1 users will be able to browse poster art, critics' reviews or suggestions based on past viewing. And then, with one tap, you will arrive at your choice. The look and feel is Apple instead of Microsoft.
The X1 look and mind-set is visual instead of text-oriented — and if it performs as advertised, it will also be instant instead of annoying. Based on the Comcast promotional material, the visual look is more like Apple TV than anything I’ve seen from Xfinity On Demand
And for those who do a lot of second-screen streaming on their computers, Comcast says X1 will provide "the ability to fling a Web page, like one that features streaming video, directly to the X1 set top box and view it on the big screen."
X1 users will also have the option of using a Remote App to control their TVs via their smartphone. A tap, swipe or voice command will let viewers "change channels, navigate the guide or use shortcuts to jump to favorites," Comcast says.
These last two features speak directly to Comcast’s desire to be the one screen to which all others, like smartphone and tablet, connect.
Thanks to X1's made-for-TV Twitter app, for example, it’s possible while watching a presidential debate or a Ravens football game to add a tweet stream to the screen to see what's being said in real time about the event. There are apps for sports, weather, local traffic, Pandora and Facebook.
"The X1 Platform is a huge leap forward for us, and transforms traditional television viewing into an entirely new, integrated entertainment experience," says Tom Coughlin, regional senior vice president for Comcast. "X1 enables us to take television, games, apps, social media and other content from a variety of different sources, and deliver it to virtually all screens in the home."
And even as X1 arrives in Baltimore, Brian F. Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, was in Washington last week at The Cable Show talking about the next iteration. X2, he says, will make it easier for users to access the library of Comcast content on their mobile devices and will further integrate content from multiple screens.
Frankly, the X's have always made my eyes glaze over. During all my years on the TV and media beat, technology has been one of the areas that least fired my imagination and passion for the territory.
But we have reached the point where technology is not only radically changing the way we watch TV, it's changing us — the way our brains engage, process and store the words, sounds and images we experience on the screen.
All those stories in the aftermath of "House of Cards" about viewers sitting up all night watching episodes one after another like addicts — only to have their spouses angrily remind them in the morning that they had planned to watch the show together — are important.
So, too, are the more recent stories that appeared after "Arrested" questioning whether being able to see 15 episodes all at once might have cheapened the experience. The theory here is that binge consumption made some viewers like the series less than they had when they had to savor each episode for a week — because the gatekeepers at the Fox network allowed them to see only one episode a week at a certain time on a certain night.
After six decades of network control, new technology and vastly increased competition have shifted the balance of power in our media lives — that's a lifestyle story, and it’s a big one.
"What this revolution is doing is making it as easy to watch a television show of our choosing as it is to call a friend or scribble a note — and that's a profound change indeed from our network-locked past," says Levinson.
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