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What Is "Smart" TV?

Is it old fashioned dumb TV made more complicated?

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What Is

All these and more...

photo: Roku, Inc.
At the recent 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, manufacturers showed off their various visions for the future of TV watching.  Despite some minor differences in approach,  all of them shared a central idea of expanded content selection and anytime delivery grouped under the handy nickname of "smart TV." 

This catchy but ambiguous concept encompasses on-demand streaming, intelligent recording capabilities and access to non-traditional video archives like YouTube and Vimeo.  It promises a world of greater choices and audience empowerment. But as this technological ship begins to sail, it's worth remembering the old adage to be wary of what you want, because you may get it.

All Those Channels, But...

For those of us who grew up watching TV before cable, VCRs and home satellite dishes arrived on the scene, lack of viewing choice is a clear and unhappy memory.  Back then in the NYC metro area, a good rooftop antenna might get you all six -- six! -- of the available VHF channels.  If you lived in a smaller broadcast market, you might have only 2 or 3 channels to pick from.   Bad weather might mean no clear TV that night and an early bedtime.

As cable TV gained ground in the 1970s and 80s, your choices multiplied into dozens, and when the VCR debuted, you were no longer tied to pre-determined viewing times.  Then came video rental shops, then satellite TV and hundreds more choices, followed by digital broadcasting and through the rise of broadband, the world of Internet TV.  The old cry of "hundreds of channels and nothing to watch" finally rang hollow.

But how does one make sense of all these choices?  The process of browsing through endless channels and sub channels is clearly not an answer for most. It harkens back to the dark days of the weekend trip to Blockbuster, wandering the aisles for a half hour or more trying to pick a movie that everyone can agree on.

The Active Choice vs. The Passive Choice

Massive on-demand video libraries like those from Netflix and Amazon certainly give us more freedom to pick the content we want to watch.  Add the hundreds -- soon thousands -- of niche channels and choice is no longer the issue so much as selection.  This is now a much more active, and unfortunately, trying process for the end user.

Right now, the smart TV concept offers loose classification as an answer.  You can sift through new releases, choose a film or show by genre or performer, or in some cases, view lists that have been "intelligently" selected for you by the provider, based on previous choices that you've made.  But how useful are any of these as a basis for an evening of kicking back and relaxing with some TV?

As an example, my cable provider, Cablevision, offers thousands of movies on a pay-per-view basis.  These are loosely classified in the user interface, sometimes by genre, sometimes by theme, sometimes by how recently they were added to Cablevision's library.  Unfortunately, none of these are particularly useful unless you already know in advance, more or less, what you're interested in seeing. 

You're unlikely to come across something unexpected and desirable when you're looking for something else altogether.  Cablevision does offer an alphabetical listing of all its movies and shows.  It can take 20 minutes or more to sift through the list, hardly an enjoyable experience.  You can't bookmark potential choices as you browse, so you need to remember possible contenders or write them down before settling on your choice.

Now multiply this activity by thousands of possible channels.  Will users want to go through this every night?  Is this really "smart" TV? 

Smart TV Needs To Get Smarter

The music industry has done a better job than the TV industry in coming up with "served" music that fits user tastes and preferences.  Services like Pandora stream content that's thematically and musically related to channels that you yourself configure.  Services like MOG let you go through a particular artist's entire catalog. iTunes will provide intelligently selected randomized playlists. 

This is all great for music, but watching video is a completely different activity.  While we often have TV in the background of other activities, more often than not we actively watch a show -- unlike a song, which we can listen to while we wash dishes or do homework. 

Still, the same concepts can easily be applied to the TV experience.  If your're interested in baseball, a truly "smart" baseball channel would give you more than today's games. It would link you to baseball commentary and documentaries, and films like Pride of the Yankees and Fear Strikes Out.  It would connect you with games from international leagues and classic World Series.  Extending a bit further, it could connect you to fan sites like FanFeedr and SB Nation, and even with Internet rotisserie leagues. A smart viewer knows about these things.  So far, smart TV does not.

None of this is technologically impossible, or even particularly difficult.  But the smart TV concept is still in its nascent stages, and so far, nobody has figured out that choice alone isn't an answer.  Curatorship is the next step. Let's see how long that takes.

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