TechKnow: I Want My (insert movie/TV show/music), Now!

b>We’re All Little Emperors, Now
Only children, of whom I am one, understand on-demand. Or at least that’s our legacy: spoiled and selfish. We want what we want, when we want it, and we want it NOW. Since the implementation of their one-child policy in 1979, Chinese policy analysts, sociologists, economists, and social commentators have lamented the rise of a generation of coddled fatties who are terribly impatient and can’t seem to learn to share. “Little Emperors”, they’re dubbed.

Hmmm… right, count me in. In fact, I’d say we could count most of the Western world into that characterization, some of us quite proudly. We live in a world where the phrase, “on-demand”, applies to a range of gratifying consumptive activities and emotions. New on-demand technologies promise users television, music, shopping, information, love, happiness, and attention — whenever they want. This is a broad definition of “on-demand”, though.

Technically, on-demand applies to telecommunication services that are present when we request them. The on-demand service we’re probably most familiar with is video-on-demand or pay-per-view. Tune your television, usually via cable, to the correct channel, see which films are on, choose the designated film and start time you’d like to view, and pay for it later with your regular cable bill. In my opinion this is more like video-by-agreement than by demand, because you’re limited by which films your cable provider offers and constrained by watching the films at a predetermined time.

So, if on-demand isn’t fully based on consumer demand, is it really anything new? After all, we’ve always been able to turn on the television set when we want to watch it. It doesn’t simply stay on. And, while you may want to channel Bruce Springsteen (“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on.”), there is always something literally on the screen. It may not be what you want to watch. You may end up feeling suicidal from all the infomercials telling you what a fat, broke, pimply frog you are, but there’re usually back-to-back episodes of Friends or Seinfeld to get you through your dinner, eaten while seated in front of the tube.

Turn on the radio and, in the UK more so than the US of Clear Channel, there are a multitude of channels with varying formats to choose from on digital radio. You need a special digital radio to pick up both standard BBC radio stations (e.g., the erudite Radio 4) and newer digital stations (e.g., BBC Asian Network or 1Xtra). But like television, for both older and emerging media of radio broadcasting, the listener still isn’t fully in control of the playlists or the nightly lineups.

Essentially, what on-demand means is that you can control the “when”, but not the “what”. For example, I can listen on-demand to Santa Monica public radio station KCRW‘s cutting-edge music offerings, but I can’t choose which songs I hear. With my current favorite on-demand music website, Pandora, you enter an artist or song and, based upon your selection, Pandora creates a streaming radio station of similar music. You can give feedback on the selections and have your station adjusted according to your likes and dislikes. My Pandora stations (Kate Earl Radio, Ladytron Radio, Mary J. Blige Radio, Imogen Heap Radio, Jeff Buckley Radio) and various musical tastes co-exist in my own personal, fluffy on-demand music world. Pandora moves closer to fulfilling the on-demand mandate than the KCRW example because you can at least pick the style of music you want to hear — if not the exact song. And, yet, I’m glad it takes the song selection out of my hands because the point of the service is to introduce listeners to songs they might not have heard otherwise. (I’m less skeptical of Pandora than fellow PopMatters columnist Rob Horning (Marginal Utility: Information Whirlwind ) because I’m not reliant on it to build my identity — at least, I don’t think I am . . . I just want to hear both familiar and unfamiliar tunes I don’t know, not build a life based on an Internet radio station.)

Will there ever be a pure form of media on-demand? Telecommunications companies are frantically trying to be the first to nail down the on-demand market with developments that at least make consumer choice look like a choice even if corporations are still pulling the strings. Media companies face three challenges in making on-demand — specifically television — a reality: affordability, quality, and time.

Leading the way in affordability experiments is the ubiquitous Apple iTunes Music Store. At $1.99 per show, Apple weekly adds both new and classic shows to its listings. Before iTunes, a kickass friend in the US would record a marathon run of Bravo’s Project Runway and post it to me. The day those three videotapes arrived was like Christmas come early! Now, with iTunes, I can download the new episode every Friday or Saturday and enjoy a weekly yuletide of fashion and Tim Gunn.

A fee of $1.99 might seem a lot to pay per program for Americans used to getting their television for “free”, but Britons are required by law to pay £131.50 ($250) per year for a license to watch television. For the satisfaction of keeping current with my favorite US programs, $1.99 is nothing by comparison to the UK method. Additionally, Americans forget that they do pay for their television, no matter if they agree to a fee or not, in the form of incessant advertising. Unless innovators interested in on-demand as a media art form decide to give away programming for free, consumers will always pay, in some way or another, for media. And, counter to the only child myth, on-demand at $1.99 allows this Little Emperor to “share” more freely. From the friends whose borrowing privileges were suspended for recording over VHS material from the Springer Lending Library to those without American iTunes accounts, I can easily spread the joy of telly via loan of hard drive.

The other concern, quality, has both technical and aesthetic overtones. Companies such as O2, the mobile phone manufacturer, are experimenting with what they are now calling “personal TV“. Paradoxically, while high street retailers like the UK’s Curry’s and the US’s Best Buy are trotting out fancy schmancy mo-jombo plasma screens, mobile phone operators are trying to figure out how to make smaller pictures appealing to the eye. For both entities, research and development teams are asking the same question: what will people settle for?

On seeing the PSP and video iPods, I thought, “Who’d want to watch telly on those crap small screens?” The quality issue will increasingly hinge on generational differences. Granted, the images on PDAs, mobile phones, and gaming consoles are quite clear and crisp, but in my inevitable shift from imperial reign to dotage, screens smaller than 17″ and fonts smaller than nine points really hack me off. Alas, I’m in that no man’s land demographic: older than the golden children of 18-24 and younger than the baby boom spending giants. I doubt my opinion will matter much. Meanwhile, in addition to the matter of the on-demand viewing apparatus, manufacturers face the huge challenge of connecting with culture producers who can create content that appeals either across generations or to particular age-groups wedded to specific technologies. Will content providers aim to broadcast to the widest age group possible, assuming we continue to have televisions in our homes? Or will they choose to narrowcast to the most mobile phone savvy generation who are likely to experiment with new technologies? In other words, will medium (small screen versus large screen) dictate content as it has in the past? The answer to this question could very well depend on how we come to negotiate the third consideration, time.

Time will have the greatest impact upon on-demand. It will also likely be greatest impacted from on-demand. How we experience and use our time in the age of on-demand is going to dramatically shift, if it hasn’t already. Media scholars talk about time shifting or the ability to record and consume media when we want it. This ability to time shift is presumably what made TiVo, the personal recording device, and Sky+ so popular in the US and UK, respectively. Yusuf’s EyeTV works on a similar principal to these technologies and he does take some time to go through schedules and plan his viewing. Unlike the mantra of the so-called labor-saving devices in the ’50s, on-demand technology doesn’t promise they’ll save you time. Instead, they promise mastery over time. Control over time is at the root of on-demand media, so it will be interesting to see how time fares in our lives…or if we even notice any changes.

I’ve noticed changes in my viewing habits, lately, but I’d maintain that on-demand TV hasn’t made them any worse than they already were. On-demand = time suckage. Sure, I could pace myself, but when offered an entire season of 24, Alias, Project Runway, Homicide: Life in the Streets, Lost, or Thief, will I save them for a night when there’s nothing on regular TV, save home improvement porn? Not likely. Instead, I’ll come up with any excuse, ranging from reward to “research” to England’s year-round crap weather, to watch several hours of television in a row. I’m not the first to call it “binge TV” watching, but I can attest that there’s a certain fullness / nausea that can result from such indulgence. “Binge TV” watching has managed to stay off the Center for Disease Controls most hazardous list, mainly because: 1) it’s not a real disease and 2) we still do have choices as consumers. Like traditional vices, we can decide not to download the entire first season of Knight Rider and just walk away from the computer. Yes we can . . . just . . . walk . . . away.

There are also the psychological time delusions that come along with on-demand television. “I’ll watch just one more episode and then I’ll write the Great American Novel.” — and — “If I watch all 22 episodes now, I’ll get it out of the way and have all of Sunday…to think about everything I should’ve been doing instead of watching TV.”

Until on-demand media takes root in our culture and settles into a routine in our lives, we won’t know what the consequences are, but we can guess, hope and hypothesize. Will on-demand finally be the diversification tool of the culture industry? With so many outlets, perhaps indies will be able to reach both mainstream and niche audiences. Perhaps we’ll all be so overloaded with content that some will decide to (or continue) to opt out of media consumption altogether.

I used to vacillate in my position on TV. There’s my “TV is a Vast Wasteland Forestalling The Next Socialist Revolution” position. In this mode, I agree with environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben, in his book, The Age of Missing Information (Random House, 1992). He offers a perspective on television, in general, that extends to on-demand TV: “As much as [television] loves choice…it doesn’t actually believe in choosing. It urges us to choose everything — this and this and this as well.” Indeed, I don’t really need to see every episode of every hotly tipped TV show — but I want to see them.

On the other hand, on-demand has tipped the scales for me toward “TV is the Greatest Thing on Earth Without Which I’d Cease to Have Joy.” While it might seem pathetic to be entirely content with TV, I won’t discount that there remains good writing, innovative storytelling, fine acting, and imagination in the world of television. (But for the flood of reality television which indicates, to the pessimistic at heart, that the prospect for quality TV programming is increasingly bleak.) Just think; if we can instantaneously access entire bodies of work for immediate consumption, we might face a bizzaro world scenario. Where once absolute crap went straight-to-video, quality work could be edged off the regular airwaves and go straight-to-on-demand. Choice and demand are in for a celebrity death match. Stay tuned…

— Kimberly Springer

Imagine the scene. The kids are with the sitter, the phone is off the hook, friends have been asked to not come over and nibbles are at the ready. The final episode of your favourite soap or the sports event of the season is coming on and nothing is going to interrupt this moment. Then the fire alarm goes off. You could ignore it; it’s probably a false alarm. But the noise is unbearable and you cannot hear the TV, anyway. Quickly, you fumble to find a videotape and then you realise you don’t need to. You pick up the remote and press the pause button. All is right with the world, again.

A tiny glimpse of the future has arrived in our living rooms. Digital or personal video recorders (DVR/PVR) are now widely available and at affordable prices. Although the technology to record and time-shift is not new (videocassette recorders did the same thing) it has made the technology a more satisfying and intelligent user experience and one that could revolutionise your viewing habits. You don’t need to worry with low quality tape recordings; you get high quality, one-click recording through a simple user interface onto a more reliable hard disk. The world is changing, and for the better, it would seem.

I live in a small flat and my (clunky) TV, decoder box, stereo system and DVD player used to take up a lot of room. I had a reached a point where despite having 100s of satellite channels available, I didn’t watch much TV. So I decided to get rid of all the electronic components and clear some space. I sold the lot and filled the space with a fish-tank. For many months I lived without television and I didn’t miss it at all. In fact I sat watching the fish-tank longer than I could bear to watch more repeats of Friends.

Knowing that I had recently purchased an iMac, a friend suggested I look into getting TV on it. At an accessible £100 I thought I’d give EyeTV a shot. The device is the size of a pack of cigarettes and it connects to the aerial. Using software, it decodes the signal and allows time shifting of live TV and programmed recording. I’ve never owned a videocassette recorder so for me being able to record anything was a new experience! Hooked up to some decent speakers, my iMac now replaces all the equipment that I had before. I can watch DVDs, listen to music, and now watch, pause, and record TV shows – with a device that takes up but a fraction of the space of my older set-up.

Over the months, this little EyeTV box has revolutionised the way I watch TV. I very rarely sit in front of the screen flicking for programmes to watch. Rather, I regularly go through the schedule and pick programmes I want to watch. I then have these on record on my hard drive so that when I do decide to devote my spare entertainment time to watching TV it isn’t an idle channel flicking activity where I receive little enjoyment and settle for Animal Park. Instead, I’m watching that which interests me when I want. In effect, I’m creating my own TV channel. I think that equipment like this, whether connected to the computer or as a standalone for the TV will become a standard feature in the future. It seems natural, now, that my remote control should have a “record” button for the TV. And I secretly laugh at friends who need to be home by a certain time to catch their favourite shows.

The software also comes with the option to export to iPod. So I could set the software to record all my programmes, then when I connected my video iPod every morning it could update them with new programmes that I could catch up on my commute to work.

There is one restriction to these otherwise neat features, and that revolves around broadcasting. I have to wait for a programme to be broadcast before it’s recorded at which point I can choose what I want to do with it. However, things are changing on that front, too. In London, HomeChoice is an innovative company that provides television via the phone line and the company already provides a service where selected popular programmes are stored on their servers for a week after broadcast times. You can also watch a selection of other programmes that are stored as on-demand channels to be streamed when you want to watch them. NTL, the major cable operator, has also rolled out a similar service nationwide. I believe that British Telecom wants to provide a similar service to rival HomeChoice. The future might come down the phone line instead of through the usual cable methods.

Today we are used to accessing our entertainment in a variety of ways: TV, Internet, mobile phones, radio, and other portable devices. If I miss a programme on the broadcast schedules I try and find it online. I rarely watch broadcast movies — they come in the post through my DVD rental service. I access news clips on my mobile phone, watch movies on my PSP and TV on my computer. I’m very much used to sourcing what I want to watch, and this is becoming a trend for others, too. We see this in the ever increasing popularity of peer-to-peer downloading (despite attempts to stop such activity), high sales figures for iTunes video downloads, and Sky+ having over 1 million subscribers to their PVR service.

The problem for broadcasters face is if we all start watching recorded programming we will probably be inclined to fast-forward over the commercials. At the moment I can either fast forward or edit out commercials from the programmes that I watch. That is great for me, but not for the broadcaster. But just as the PVR learns about what you want to watch, it means that your service provider will probably also make a profile on what products you may be interested in, and you will then have built-in, customised ads in your programming. It may be that you won’t be able to fast forward the ads or that the advertising will be shown at the beginning of your programme which you will have to sit through before the main title appears – much like you do at the cinema. Targeted advertising is, of course, the Holy Grail for advertising firms.

For now, I love what my little EyeTV box has done for my life. Even with fewer channels I watch more TV and if in the future I see targeted advertising I probably wouldn’t mind so much — at least I wouldn’t have to sit through boring commercials about things I’m not interested in! If only I could have PVR facilities for rewinding and fast-forwarding over parts of my life. Hey . . . isn’t there a movie about that?

— Yusuf Osman

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists