The era of quality content on video streaming services is often referred to as “peak TV,” but Eli Noam, the Paul Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility, thinks that television is nowhere near a downward slope.
“We are entering a golden age of extraordinary innovation on the technology side, with TV-tech leaving its slow-moving standardized past behind and joining the rapid “Moore’s Law” rate of change that has characterized the IT sector,” Noam says. “New tools of ‘content engineering’ are emerging, and enable innovation on the content side. This is culturally and intellectually a fabulous time with all that’s emerging.”
Noam, who has authored several scholarly studies on the societal impact of television in terms of technology, content, business models, and government regulations, is writing a book on what he calls “Cloud TV,” television transmitted via the internet. “It is by far the most comprehensive analysis and in-depth discussion of the emerging next generation of television,” Noam says.
Several media and technology firms — Disney, Apple, AT&T, and Comcast among them — are set to launch streaming services in the coming months, to compete with existing services from Netflix, Hulu, Google, and CBS, raising questions about television’s future for consumers, content creators, and regulators.
“We are right now in an extremely fluid state in which everybody, in America and around the world, realizes they have to do something,” Noam says. “But when the dust settles, there will be fewer streaming services because there are very high economies of scale, scope, verticality, and distance. Also, how many of these services can you expect people to subscribe to given the cost and headache of it?”
On Nov. 12, the Walt Disney Company will launch Disney+, a streaming service to compete with Netflix, where consumers will be able to access the media giant’s vast content library, which now includes 20th Century Fox’s holdings, Hulu, and Marvel. In August, Apple announced it will roll out its Apple TV+ this fall with a $6 billion budget to spend on original content.
Comcast-owned NBC Universal is set to launch its advertising-supported streaming service in April, with plans to feature programming from its recent purchase of Sky Networks.
AT&T, which owns WarnerMedia, the parent company of HBO, is preparing two new services, AT&T TV and HBO Max, the latter of which will stream original programming, in addition to content from other Warner Media properties.
According to Noam, the winners in the streaming battle are likely to be determined by their ability to integrate content, platforms, and distribution. He cites Disney as a model, which in 2016 purchased BAMTech, a streaming distribution system originally developed by Major League Baseball. “It is an established, very successful distribution system and now Disney controls it,” Noam says. “Disney, among the traditional media companies, has a strong presence and a huge head start in tech.”
Noam says the new form of distribution will not be simply a new way to get the same old content, but will have an impact on styles and genres. “It will be a powerful tool for marketing and skills training,” he says. “But it will also enable people to live virtual lives without social constraints, and industrialize escalating stimuli, including in political campaigns.”
And as discussed in another of Noam’s recent books, the empirically oriented Who Owns the World’s Media, these new distribution systems may well be dominated by a small number of sophisticated media and tech companies. Noam says these issues invite further government regulation such as restrictions on vertical integrations to limit the market power of media companies that control both digital distribution and content platforms. “Thus, proposals to break up large tech/media companies have become louder,” he says
But at the same time, governments also lean on these large companies to police the new media environment by excluding various forms of controversial content. This creates a symbiotic relationship Noam says is unhealthy.
In addition, Noam believes overseas governments will seek to stem the influence of American media companies. “Governments are always worried about media powers and that’s even more of a problem in other countries when the new styles of media are American-based.” Noam says. “For a while tech firms were welcomed with open arms, but there’s a global backlash that will clearly result in protectionist interventions.”
Noam thinks that the combination of such regulations could lead to a slowdown in technological innovation and entrepreneurialism in the streaming market. Instead of breaking up companies, or making them global de-facto regulators, Noam advocates a system of access to those tech platform elements where “significant media market power” exists. Such access, he says, would be through intermediary companies or non-profits chosen by the end users. These companies would create different options for privacy protections, as well as find and screen content.
Despite these emerging issues, Noam is confident that emerging technology, such as virtual reality, interactivity, real-time rendering, and artificial intelligence — some of them inspired by video games — will make television a far more exciting medium in the future, with content producers also creating immersive and participatory experiences.
“There’s a whole new vocabulary of technology and techniques emerging,” Noam says. “It will create a medium that is even more transformative of culture, politics, and the marketplace than the original TV was when it began.”