Nothing Special

I.

And so it begins.

Last week, YouTube began the laborious process of removing all clips of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at the request of VIACOM, parent to Paramount Television, which runs Comedy Central, home to The Daily Show. This is no easy task; there are probably tens of thousands of clips of The Daily Show posted to YouTube. Not all of them are tagged well, so – despite its every effort – YouTube is going to miss some of them, opening themselves up to continuing legal action from VIACOM.

It is as all of YouTube’s users feared: now that billions of dollars are at stake, YouTube is playing by the rules. The free-for-all of video clip sharing which brought YouTube to greatness is now being threatened by that very success. Because YouTube is big enough to sue – part of Google, which has a market capitalization of over 160 billion dollars – it is now subject to the same legal restrictions on distribution as all of the other major players in media distribution. In other words, YouTube’s ability to hyperdistribute content has been entirely handicapped by its new economic vulnerability. Since this hyperdistribution capability is the quintessence of YouTube, one wonders what will happen. Can YouTube survive as its assets are slowly stripped away?

Mark Cuban’s warnings have come back to haunt us; Cuban claimed that only a moron would buy YouTube, built as it is on the purloined copyrights of others. Cuban’s critique overlooked the enormous value of YouTube’s of peer-produced content, something I have noted elsewhere. Thus, this stripping of assets will not diminish the value of YouTube. Instead, it will reveal the true wealth of peer-production.

In the past week I’ve used YouTube at least five times daily – but not to watch The Daily Show. I’ve been watching a growing set of political advertisements, commentary and mashups, all leading up to the US midterm elections. YouTube has become the forum for the sharing of political videos, and, while some of them are brazenly lifted from CNN or FOX NEWS, most are produced by the campaigns, and are intended to be hyperdistributed as widely as possible. Political advertising and YouTube are a match made in heaven. When political activism crosses the line into citizen journalism (such as in the disturbing clips of people being roughed up by partisan thugs) that too is hyperdistributed via YouTube. Anything that’s captured on a video camera, or television tuner, or mobile telephone can (and frequently does) end up on YouTube in a matter of minutes.

Even as VIACOM executed their draconian copyrights, the folly of their old-school thinking became ever more apparent. Oprah featured a segment on Juan Mann, Sick Puppies and their now-entirely-overexposed video. It’s been up on YouTube for five weeks, has now topped five million views, and four major record labels are battling for the chance to sign Sick Puppies to a recording contract. It reveals the fundamental paradox of hyperdistribution: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. Take The Daily Show off of YouTube, and fewer people will see it. Fewer people will want to catch the broadcast. Ratings will drop off. And you run the risk of someone else – Ze Frank, perhaps, or another talented upstart – filling the gap.

Yes, Comedy Central is offering The Daily Show on their website, for those who can remember to go there, can navigate through the pages to find the show they want, can hope they have the right video software installed, etc. But Comedy Central isn’t YouTube. It isn’t delivering half of the video seen on the internet. YouTube has become synonymous with video the way Google has become synonymous with search. Comedy Central ignores this fact at its peril, because it’s relying on a change in audience behavior.

II.

Television producers are about to learn the same lessons that film studios and the recording industry learned before them: what the audience wants, it gets. Take your clips off of YouTube, and watch as someone else – quite illegally – creates another hyperdistribution system for them. Attack that system, and watch as it fades into invisibility. Those attacks will force it to evolve into ever-more-undetectable forms. That’s the lesson of music-sharing site Napster, and the lesson of torrent-sharing site Supernova. When you attack the hyperdistribution system, you always make the problem worse.

In its rude, thuggish way, VIACOM is asserting the primacy of broadcasting over hypercasting. VIACOM built an empire from television broadcasting, and makes enormous revenues from it. They’re unlikely to do anything that would encourage the audience toward a new form of distribution. At the same time, they’re powerless to stop that audience from embracing hyperdistribution. So now we get to see the great, unspoken truth of television broadcasting – it’s nothing special. Buy a chunk of radio spectrum, or a satellite transponder, or a cable provider: none of it gives you any inherent advantage in reaching the audience. Ten years ago, they were a lock; today, they’re only an opportunity. There are too many alternate paths to the audience – and the audience has too many paths to one another.

This doesn’t mean that broadcasting will collapse – at least not immediately. It does mean that – finally – there’s real competition. The five media megacorporations in the United States now have several hundred thousand motivated competitors. Only a few of these will reach the “gold standard” of high-quality production technique which characterizes broadcast media. The audience doesn’t care. The audience prizes immediacy, relevancy, accessibility, and above all, salience. There’s no way that five companies, however rich and productive, can satisfy the needs of an audience which has come to expect that it can get exactly what it wants, when it wants, wherever it wants. Furthermore, there’s no way to stop anything that gets broadcast by those companies from being hyperdistributed and added to the millions of available choices. You’d need to lock down every PC, every broadband connection, and every television in the world to maintain a level of control which, just a few years ago, came effortlessly.

VIACOM may sense the truth of this, even as they act against this knowledge. Rumors have been swirling around the net, indicating that YouTube and VIACOM have come to a deal, and that the clips will not be removed – this, while they’re still being deleted. VIACOM, caught in the inflection point between broadcasting and hypercasting, doesn’t fully understand where its future interests lie. In the meantime, it thrashes about as its lizard-brained lawyers revert to the reflexive habits of cease-and-desist.

III.

This week, after two years of frustration and failure, I managed to install and configure MythTV. MythTV is a LINUX-based digital video recorder (DVR) which has been in development for over four years. It has matured enormously in that time, but it still took every last one of my technical skills – plus a whole lot of newly-acquired ones – to get it properly set up. Even now, after some four days of configuration, I’m not quite finished. That puts MythTV miles out of the range of the average viewer, who just wants a box they can drop into their system, turn on, and play with. Those folks purchase a TiVo. But TiVo doesn’t work in Australia – at least, not without the same level of technical gymnastics required to install MythTV. If I had digital cable – spectacularly uncommon in Australia – I could use Foxtel iQ, a very polished DVR with multiple tuners, full program guide, etc. But I have all of that, right now, running on my PC, with MythTV.

I’ve never owned a DVR, though I have written about them extensively. The essential fact of the DVR is that it coaxes you away from television as a live medium. That’s an important point in Australia, where most of us have just five broadcast channels to pick from: frequently, there’s nothing worth watching. But, once you’ve set up the appropriate recording schedule on your DVR, the device is always filled with programming you want to watch. People with DVRs tend to watch 30% more television than those without, and they tend to enjoy it more, because they’re getting just the programmes they find most salient.

Last night – the first night of a relatively complete MythTV configuration – I went to attend a friend’s lecture, but left MythTV to record the evening’s news programmes. I came back in, and played the recorded programmes, but took full advantage of the DVRs ability to jump through the content. I skipped news stories I’d seen earlier in the day (plus all of the sport reportage), and reviewed the segments I found most interesting. I watched 2 hours of television in about 45 minutes, and felt immensely satisfied at the end, because, for the first time, I could completely command the television broadcast, shaping it to the demands of salience. This is the way TV should be watched, I realized, and I knew there’d be no going back.

My DVR has a lot in common with YouTube. Both systems skirt the law; in my case the programming schedules which I download from a community-hosted site are arguably illegal under Australian copyright law, and recording a program at all – either in the US or in Australia – is also illegal. (You don’t sue your audience, and you don’t waste your money suing a not-for-profit community site.) Both systems give me immediate access to content with enormous salience; I see just what I want, just when I want to. YouTube is home to peer-produced content, while the DVR houses professional productions, works that meet the “gold standard”. I have already begun to conceive of them as two halves of the same video experience.

It won’t be long before some enterprising hacker integrates the two meaningfully: perhaps a YouTube plugin for MythTV? (MythTV is a free and open source application, available for anyone to modify or improve.) Perhaps it will be some deal struck between the broadcasters and YouTube. Or perhaps both will occur. This would represent the kind of “convergence” much talked about in the late 1990s, and all but abandoned. Convergence has come; from my point of view it doesn’t matter whether I use MythTV or YouTube or their hybrid offspring. All I care about is watching the programmes that interest me. How they get delivered is nothing special.

The Sweet Spot

I.

Consider the lowly VCR. Once the king of the consumer electronics roost, the Japanese giant Matsushita has stopped manufacturing them in favor of DVD players. Unless they’re combined with a DVD player, most people have stopped buying them. I haven’t bought one in Australia, despite the fact that I need one for work, because I am regularly given video briefs for review, inventions to be presented on THE NEW INVENTORS. But somehow I can’t bring myself to spend the $100 on a VCR. Is that because I’m cheap? Hardly. It’s because I think VCRs suck – and I’m sure most of you would agree. They’re low-resolution, finicky, and nearly impossible to program. Yet, despite all these obvious drawbacks, VCRs changed the world.

In the time before the VCR, the television set was nothing more than a radio-wave tuner connected to an analog monitor. The television could only show programs as they were broadcast. Nothing else. Suddenly, the VCR enabled people to record broadcasts for later playback, or play pre-recorded cassettes. The VCR introduced the concept of “time-shifting” (though that term didn’t emerge until quite recently), and freed the audience from the hegemony of the broadcaster. This was such a catastrophic change that court battles were fought over it: the United States Supreme Court, ruling in the Sony “Betamax” decision, allowed that the VCR could be sold legally, even though time-shifting a television program constituted a violation of copyright – and still does, here in Australia. (The legal status of time-shifting in the United States is vague.)

While time-shifting moved power away from the broadcasters and into the audience, it also created a huge market for pre-recorded entertainment. Theatrical release provided one hundred percent of studio revenues in 1954. By 2004, that figure was down to 15%. It seems that audience choice is good economics; when you empower audience viewing habits, you dramatically increase the overall market.

By the late-1980s, as the studios saw incredible revenues flow in from pre-recorded videocassettes, they got together to promote a format which would have all of the advantages of the VCR, with none of its disadvantages. This format would provide a near-cinema-quality experience, but would be a read-only format. Consumers would be given greater choice, but only from a pre-produced collection of offerings. DVD, like the VCR before it, has become another biggest success story in consumer electronics. At least 75% of all households in Australia have at least one DVD player, and they’re now standard equipment on nearly all personal computers. The studios earn more – often far more – from DVD sales than from the theatrical release of their motion pictures. The DVD has driven the VCR out of the living room, just as the CD player obsolesced the turntable, fifteen years ago.

II.

Nothing comes for free. The qualities that made the VCR, and the vinyl album before it, so annoying (noise, scratches, and just entropy in general) are the same qualities which made it a “safe” medium, so far as copyright protection was concerned. When the music industry transitioned from waves to bits, they unknowingly unleashed the engine of their own destruction. Waves are difficult to copy faithfully; every copy introduces noise and distortion. Bits can be copied perfectly every single time. Bits can be compressed and distributed at the speed of light. When digital music met the Web, back in 1993, the Internet Underground Music Archive, a small site running out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, everything changed. Suddenly, anyone could publish music, or download music, to anyone, anywhere. The combination of digital music plus the World Wide Web produced a resonance of sorts, a “sweet spot” which initiated a transformation that continues to this day, with over 42 million iPods and countless other digital music devices. Within this transformation there are countless secondary sweet spots – such as the iPod itself, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store – moments where technology and design meet in glorious union, producing prodigious amounts of heat and light. Like a spark to petrol, when design meets capability, the results can be explosive.

Like the music industry before them, the studios are confronting the cost of their transition from waves to bits. A DVD provides four times the picture quality of a VHS recording, together with 5.1 surround sound. It performs this magic by encoding a very high-bandwidth video signal into a relatively low-bandwidth data stream. This was high magic back in 1991, when the MPEG-2 standard was developed. Now it’s old tech. You can now squeeze a two hour movie into one-tenth the space, with no loss in quality. And that has changed everything about how we use video.

The first folks to realize this were a group of engineers who’d broken away from Silicon Graphics after working on Time-Warner’s Full Service Network, better known as “The Orlando Project.” This test bed (in Orlando, Florida) wired 1500 homes to very high-speed cable modems, and each home connected to the service through their own $60,000 Silicon Graphics workstation. The goal of The Orlando Project was to develop the future of video delivery – in other words, the system which would replace the analog cable systems which had by then fully penetrated the US market. Years ahead in interface design, The Orlando Project fully employed the 3D capabilities of the SGI workstation to create something known as “The Carousel,” which allowed home users to select from about 500 different offerings. (At the time, this was an order of magnitude more than any competitive offering.) The design of The Carousel – spearheaded by Dale Herigstad, who would go on to design the interface for Microsoft’s Media Center, and its Xbox 360 – attempted to guide the user through a bewildering set of video selections in a straightforward manner. While consumers liked The Carousel, Time-Warner cancelled the project to focus on other, less costly digital cable ventures. The engineers at Silicon Graphics, intrigued by what they’d started, soon left to form their own company.

In 1999 the Full Service Network bore unexpected fruit. TiVO, the company founded by those refugees from SGI, introduced its first “personal video recorder.” The idea of recording video to a hard drive for later playback was not new; electronic program guides had been used by cable companies for years. Yet, when these two technologies were integrated around an exceptionally well-designed user interface, another resonance struck, and a sweet spot appeared, one which is utterly transforming the way we think of video. People who could never hope to program a VCR have bought TiVOs in droves, recording all their favorite programs, and watching, on average, 60% more television than individuals who don’t have TiVOs. However, TiVO makes it exceptionally easy to fast-forward through commercial breaks, which is a plus for the audience, but a big concern to the broadcaster. By 2009, there’ll be at least a 30% drop-off in eyeballs watching TV advertisements, all because of TiVO and its many imitators. But the “TiVO effect” is far more profound. TiVO has disconnected any relationship between the network and the audience. The audience is watching a personalized stream of programming, one which bears no fundamental relationship to its source.

I discovered this TiVO effect when one of my friends – who has owned a TiVO for five years – recommended that I watch Making the Band: INXS. I asked him what network it was on. He thought for a long moment, and then said, “I have no idea.” After such along period of time with TiVO, the idea of broadcaster and programming have disassociated; it’s all just programs, on his TiVO. TiVO has become the broadcaster.

III.

This transformation in audience behavior wrought by TiVO points up an essential relationship between design and technology: where they meet in harmony, they produce a new medium. TiVO is the medium, and “the medium is the message.” TiVO has fundamentally changed the relationship between audience and programming; now that TiVOs are broadband-connected, they don’t even need television receivers. TiVOs could download programming directly from the Internet, or take recorded programs, and transmit them to anywhere on the Internet. The latest of TiVO’s competitors, the Slingbox, does this perfectly. I can connect a Slingbox at home in Surry Hills and watch any programming it has recorded, anywhere in the world. Not only have I disconnected the programming from the broadcaster, I’ve cut the cord to my television set. Now my television is anywhere I might be.

Still, TiVO and Slingbox have clung to the idea that there is a content source – that is, the television broadcaster – and an audience hungry for that content. That’s no longer true. With the recent advent of the Video iPod, the iTunes Video Store, Google Video, YouTube, and the ever growing influence of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, the balance of content is shifting away from the broadcasters to the “peer-productions” of the audience.

This is the revolution that’s waiting to happen. Right now there is no easy way for your average television viewer to find and view the enormous range of content that’s out on the Internet. File-sharing networks are either illegal, dangerous or too difficult for the average audience member to master. Google Video and YouTube must be viewed on a computer. None of the pieces fit together. Yet. And although the Video iPod can be plugged into a television set, very few people do it. It’s still too clumsy.

There is a resonance here, something that’s just on the cusp of happening. Someone (and it could well be Apple) will find a way to tie the television into the Internet meaningfully, formally breaking the bond between the television-as-radio-receiver and television-as-output-device. When that happens, the meaning of television channels and broadcasters will begin to fade into significance. We’ll still watch broadcasts of live events – such as news or sport – but otherwise our televisions will be portals into the ever-increasing supply of peer-produced programming. All we need to do is locate the sweet spot, the harmonious meeting point between design and technology.

It’s widely believed that technology is not informed by design disciplines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without design, technology remains locked into a culture of expertise. Design-led technologies – such as TiVO and the iPod – transform our expectations and our behavior. Technology alone can not do that. It hasn’t the capability. We need to adjust our thinking. Design is not the handmaiden of technology. It’s the other way around. Design must be in the driver’s seat. Without the resonance which brings mind and hand together meaningfully, all we’ll ever have is unrealized potential. When design drives technology, when we assert that human needs trump raw capability, we create the artifacts which change the world.