The idiot box gets smart – and threatens old media

MODERN technophiles are already used to multi-tasking online. And with online mainstays now venturing into the coveted space of TV entertainment, attention spans are set to encounter another challenge.

Google TV is due to launch in the US by the end of the year to rival Boxee – a service built originally from open source Xbox software code – while Apple TV has been slimmed down in preparation for its UK launch at a retail price of £99.

Preview screenshots show that Google TV users will simultaneously have the ability to watch TV in one corner of the screen and browse online content related to the programme on the rest of it.

So while technophobes wheel out arguments against the mesmerising gaze of television turning its consumers into passive couch potatoes, the TV of the future is more likely to join smartphones and Twitter as a relentless source of hyperactivity.

But what do these sleek new appendages to the idiot box actually add? And, crucially, can these flashy services distract us from a more important development: the growing accessibility of low-cost – or even free – online TV.

Already it is possible to watch TV feeds online through services like hulu.com and ivi.tv. And there is an ever-expanding range of TV apps for mobiles, such as Rok TV, which offers Blackberry users live feeds of ITN and Reuters for just over £3 per month.

Detractors argue that many of these so-called new developments are just rehashes of existing services. PC World’s Barbara Hernandez dismisses Apple TV as “a glorified TiVo nobody needs”. The Apple TV box lets users purchase episodes in TV quality a la carte – but why bother when you can watch and share many online for free through legal services like Hulu?

Hernandez suggests other functions that could help rivals out-manoeuvre Apple’s prescriptive offering, including video-conferencing and an ability to store one’s media library online.

Paul Entwistle of Pace – a leading manufacturer of set-top boxes – agrees that making content mobile is key. In the future, he says: “The content will belong to the viewer, not to one particular device, and they will have the power to transfer it around the devices operating in their home, whether it’s the TV, the PC screen or the iPad.”

But there is still a major barrier to the liberalisation of TV content: old media. While new media firms like Apple and Google are striking deals that add limited functionality and don’t threaten the subscription TV model, new firms like ivi.tv have less incentive to play nice. ivi.tv offers a full TV service for free on your computer (unfortunately only in the US), which it promised would be “highly disruptive”.

Its CEO Todd Weaver says: “The cable industry has spent countless millions of dollars on so-called ‘TV Everywhere’ solutions to prop up outdated technology and business models. ivi empowers its users to experience TV Anywhere, offering them major broadcast channels delivered live to their laptop or desktop, making the set-top box and any ‘Web to TV’ products obsolete. Instead of attempting to bring the web to the TV, ivi intuitively brings TV to the web.”

To compete in such a world, old media companies need to start offering services beyond mere content. Whether viewers are willing to pay the same prices just for a high-quality picture or the ability to search their programmes remains in question.

In other words, your living room is about to be engulfed in the same dilemma that is tearing apart the traditional, paid-for music and newspaper industries: how to get users to pay for content they can now access for free.

So it’s a shame that the new multi-tasking services on offer mean that we might not have the attention span to follow the debate.