In tech and TV circles, they call it "TV Everywhere" -- a future when we can tune in our favorite shows wherever we are. But all it means is that people are watching TV differently now, and behind the camera networks are scrambling to catch up.
Boy, are they scrambling.
Proof that viewing habits are changing came earlier this month when research firm SNL Kagan revealed that 741,000 households stopped subscribing to basic cable in the third quarter of this year. That's the biggest drop in subscribers in 30 years, and the reason is obvious.
Today, we're watching shows on the bus, on the train, in the backseat of the car, on mobile phones and on iPads. It's not so much that people are "cutting the cord"; it's usually still needed for that all-important Internet connection. And it's not that audiences don't love shows like Glee (we do). But we're not tethered to a living room set anymore. So the days when we all watched the same program at the same time are over.
Consequently, electronics companies and broadcasters are working on how to get viewers back by giving them what they want. The result: a slew of new services and gadgets. Sure, Internet-connected TVs and set-top boxes are making inroads, but the next tech trend portends a far more mobile TV future.
On cell phones, one can choose from a variety of channels and videos on demand. T-Mobile TV, for example, is available on the myTouch 4G and HDC HD7 ($200 each with a two-year contract). The basic service is free including some live TV and programs from ABC News, Fox Sports, PBS Kids and Disney. You can get more than 40 more channels of programming for just $9.99 a month. The company behind the service, and similar offerings from Sprint, is MobiTV.
"There's a massive rush from the media space to the mobile space," Charlie Nooney, the CEO of MobiTV, told me this week. MobiTV already has about 14 million subscribers under various brands, including T-Mobile and Sprint. It also works on about 350 different gadgets, mainly handsets like Blackberry and Android smart phones.
Watching a show on a cell phone can be a mixed experience. Some program downloads work seamlessly -- if you've got a 4G connection or do it over Wi-Fi. But live, streaming programs over a 3G cellular network can look blocky and blurry, making sporting events for die-hard fans only.
Similar issues come up with a competing broadcasting format called Mobile Digital TV -- a new standard for local television stations to broadcast their signals to portable devices equipped with special tuners.
I've tried several Mobile DTV equipped gadgets, including a cell phone and a portable DVD player. They work well enough, but only in screen sizes up to about 7 inches (go larger than that and the picture gets fuzzy). And depending on local reception, the picture drops out when you go beyond about 40 miles from the local station.
"Right now, we've got about 70 markets that are lit up," says Vincent Sadusky, the president of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, the industry group behind Mobile DTV. At the upcoming Consumer Electronic Show in January in Las Vegas, dozens of Mobile DTV-compatible devices will be introduced, including laptop computers and cell phones.
"I think 2011 is going to be a differentiating year when you'll see quite a few markets roll out the products," Sadusky told me. There are also plans for DVR-like features (pause the movie while you take a phone call) and nationwide stations so that you never travel out of range of TV.
Of course, we've heard the drumbeat of TV Everywhere before -- and two previous endeavors have failed. The satellite-based AT&T CruiseCast and Qualcomm's FloTV are both deceased. The AT&T branded venture was for cars and required expensive, clunky equipment. FloTV offered too little programming, and building the network to support viewers everywhere proved to be expensive. (Now there are rumors that AT&T may buy Qualcomm's FloTV transmission space.)
Moreover, the traditional TV services aren't standing still. Cablevision has plans to offer a remote DVR service to subscribers (no more set-top DVR!) so that you can watch recorded shows anywhere, and Comcast just introduced an iPad app. Dish Network, which is pushing the technological envelope faster than any other carrier, already works seamlessly with Google TV for video searches.
Last week Dish announced that it would also allow subscribers to place-shift -- watch shows remotely on just about any device using a $99 Sling Adapter. Dish calls the service, you guessed it, TV Everywhere.
Nevertheless, many will argue that TV Everywhere is already here. It's called Netflix.
The mail-order DVD outfit has seen its streaming video business explode of late, and just announced a streaming only service for just $8 a month (DVD service now starts at $10 a month). It's a recognition that viewers love the streaming option, with the service available on scores of devices from Internet-connected TVs and Blu-ray players to set-top boxes and iPads. I watched a Netflix movie on a new Windows phone the other day!
Even on the Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console, online traffic has shifted away from multiplayer gaming toward streaming movies from Netflix. Now Netflix says the majority of its 17 million subscribers watch more movies and TV shows online than they do DVDs.
But this isn't Netflix reinventing itself. It's us, the television viewers, reinventing Netflix.
And our viewing habits are poised to reinvent cable and broadcast TV. Just as my daughter can't conceive of a time when we couldn't record a TV show, or a day when we had to go to a theater to see a movie, in a few years time it may be difficult to remember what it was like when we couldn't watch whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted -- and wherever we wanted.