Network Performance When TV Dies

Over the past year or so, I have become enraptured with the possibilities of storytelling presented by reality television.  Last night, I wrote an e-mail to a pen-pal about how one reality show explored the themes of trust vs. mistrust, selflessness vs. selfishness, and rationality vs. instinct – like I was analyzing a novel for an English lit course.  And no, I didn’t do so ironically.

I know.  I scare myself too.

So I like television, don’t get me wrong; but Paul Graham is 100% right in his latest essay: “Why TV Lost.”

It’s clear now that even by using the word “convergence” we were giving TV too much credit. This won’t be convergence so much as replacement. People may still watch things they call “TV shows,” but they’ll watch them mostly on computers.

For me, this has already happened.  Over the past year, there have been two shows I’ve watched “live” instead of waiting for the video stream to appear online – “The Mole,” and “The Amazing Race.” The only reason I’ve bothered doing so (and I use that verb because it is a bother) is simply because I want to be able to immediately join in the online conversations and social applications of my fellow fans after air.  To me, the television is the beginning of the whole entertainment experience – and the least essential part.  The most essential part is the network – the interconnections between people that makes everything fascinating.

For most shows, however, I don’t bother turning on the television at all – I watch them on the computer.  I have a 46” HDTV, but 99.404% of the time, it’s acting as a computer monitor – not as a television.  For me and others of my generation, “TV” ceases to lose any meaning – they’re the same bits as text, as pictures, as music, as games, and as computer programs.

In Graham’s essay, he goes into the details of why the move from TV to computer is irreversible, but it mostly boils down to that A) broadband made video downloads possible, B) video downloads are more convenient, C) computers allow you to connect to other people and converse with them, something television has only ever been able to create a weak facsimile of.

Now, as far as network performance goes, A and B are the most important.  We expect the ability from broadband connections to get video – whether YouTube or iTunes.  And one of the reasons that video communication is the “next big thing” in the enterprise is that because we’ve had years of experience with video IP through YouTube and other sites.  Video has become so ubiquitous on the Web that blocking video in order to conserve bandwidth often means that information is simply more difficult to get to, and we no longer think of network communication as “VoIP” – we now think in terms of unified communications.

From a network engineer’s standpoint, the technology in the home determines what people expect from technology in the workplace – anything less than that, and to the end-user, “the network is slow.”

It is C, however, that is the most interesting from a sociologist’s standpoint.  Remember how I said that I had become a fan of reality television.  One of the strange things about this genre of entertainment is that unlike the big sitcom star, or the talk show host insulated from people and press through an army of spokesmen and mail-openers, is that many of the “reality stars” and “pseudo-celebrities” are much more open and engaging with the audiences that watch them.  Check out a reality TV forum – stars appearing on TV are there, communicating with the audience directly, using the Internet to create interactivity.

Decry reality TV as lowbrow if you want, but the shift from the tube to “YouTube” is outright fascinating.  Maybe Reality TV has gotten a foothold because it is extremely cheap to produce compared to other fare, but it, perhaps more than any other genre, starts to get what people want – they want interconnectivity and conversations.

And because people want interconnectivity and conversations, people expect sufficient network performance to telecommunicate – video and audio – with whomever.  The most dreaded foe in any online game is “lag,” because poor network performance kills our ability to communicate.

During the editorial process for this post, the theory was advanced that reality TV succeeds because people will watch whatever is on television, no matter what’s on television.  I don’t think that’s so – and if it might have been true at one time, I do not think that it is true today for those who prefer to get video entertainment via the computer.  We are the “conversation generation,” and we have created a new media to fill our needs.  The question is whether we can continue to keep the network supporting our conversations.

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