It’s not that I hate TV — to the contrary, it’s the most effective means of mass communication on the planet. Anyway, it could be, if the currency of communication wasn’t devalued from the outset by pandering to the lowest possible common denominator. See, TV was never about entertainment or education — it was about advertising, and it still is. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that — from earliest times, commerce and culture have always worked in tandem in one way or another. Nobody ever did art purely for art’s sake and lived to tell about it.
The problem with network TV is that its content is largely controlled by advertisers who, understandably, prefer not to offend any potential customer. Art takes a backseat to the whims of the Great Unwashed; as a result, American Idol and Deal or No Deal become ratings juggernauts while offbeat scripted series like Life and Pushing Daisies struggle vainly to find an audience. It’s no coincidence that The Sopranos and Dexter garnered praise galore during their cable runs. Unfettered by advertising whims, premium cable is free to explore a full range of human emotion.
Now that broadband connections are more the norm than the oddity, TV is poised to enter into the next phase of its evolution. YouTube was a pioneer in this evolution, and its amazing growth forced the traditional outlets to take note. All the major networks offer next day reruns of their current shows on their respective websites, albeit with the obligatory “limited commercial interruptions.” There have been independent attempts at making Internet TV a reality, such as Hulu, but they tend to get swallowed up by the conglomerates before they can spread their wings.
The Internet, being the refuge of renegades and chancers of every stripe, continues to reinvent itself, and the promise of TV on demand is a battlefield rife with upstart entrepeneurs intent on reshaping cyberspace in their own vision. Of the current combatants, Joost (created by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, founders of Skype and Kazaa) holds the most promise in terms of shaking up the rules of television. Here’s a brief introduction:
What Joost brings to the table is a refreshing irreverence towards the entire concept of television as culture. That’s not to say Joost dismisses TV as we know it — it is, after all, a commercial venture — but it offers a dizzying array of viewing options, from international news to classic cartoons to scantily clad supermodels to cult TV classics, and its channels grow almost daily.
I’ve been exploring Joost for a couple of weeks now, and I have to admit I’ve only skimmed the surface of its content. With over 400 channels, that’s understandable. Even at that, I’m impressed. I’ve seen the original Star Trek. I’ve seen a beautiful presentation of the 2008 Geneva Auto Show. I’ve watched newscasts from a European perspective. I’ve seen sporting events, classic cartoons, cult movies, those aforementioned scantily clad swimsuit models, nonsensical video clips, cooking shows, lifestyle programs — the list goes on. For instance, the site has recently added the complete run of Jericho and the first three seasons of Beverly Hills 90210 to its roster. Clearly, there’s nothing elitist about Joost.
Joost isn’t perfect. It’s not web-based (yet, though rumor has it there may be a web-based version in the offing), relying instead on P2P technology. It does require a download and a subscription to access its content, but that’s a minuscule price to pay considering the wealth of content here. Yeah, you have to deal with an occasional ad because bills have to be paid. On the plus side, the ads are tiny pop-ups that occasionally appear in the corner of the screen, not full-blown adverts. Beyond that, I haven’t been bothered by video skips or jaggies — the video quality of any content I’ve viewed is at least equal to a conventional cable broadcast. Granted, my DSL connection offers me an average of 6mbs, but I don’t see any broadband connection faring much worse.
Television as we know it isn’t going away anytime soon (unless you count the federally mandated all-digital transmission conversion in early 2009), and the Internet isn’t going to be the preferred method of viewing TV within months, or even the next few years. What is foreseeable, though, is a gradual convergence of the two platforms. That’s not news — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates envisioned the computer as innocuous appliance years ago. What we have now is a realization of those prophecies. However you slice it, Joost is a pioneering step in that convergence. Besides a remarkable llibrary that’s constantly expanding, it’s taking baby steps to that convergence, with forums, tech support, and even user-based chat. In short, Joost has the potential to make TV fun again.