Jul 24, 2013

The Prophesy of the Wounded Wildebeest And Other Tales of Summer


Because it’s summer and because it’s fun to speculate (and because last week saw both an Apple TV and Google TV story, both based on unnamed sources and secret meetings) let’s take a look at what the world might look like if the Prophesy of the Wounded Wildebeest comes true and one of the MVPDs gives in to Apple.

The Prophesy of the Wounded Wildebeest says that the weakest of the MVPDs, the one most likely to be culled from the herd and taken out by the jackals of Bankruptcy and Insolvency is the one that’s most likely to strike a deal with Apple in a sort of Hail Mary play that assumes the Apple TV will be successful enough to keep them in business and then some. And since that is more or less what happened with the introduction of the iPhone, the prophesy is not altogether unfounded.

So let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that the device in question is a streaming set top box, something on the order of the current Apple TV device, that delivers Apple’s magical new TV interface to the user’s existing television set. (Apple has no reason to actually build a TV set: the monitors are dumb terminals and there’s nothing wrong with them in terms of size, shape or screen quality.) Let’s further assume that this set top box is available only to subscribers who have the Wounded Wildebeest’s cable and internet service (e.g. most of them) and that the Apple TV enables some combination of live broadcast (of several hundred of the most popular stations), VOD and DVR functionalities. And that no matter what you think of Jonny Ives’ design for iOS 7, the new TV interface is universally acknowledged to be something pretty special. Special enough for fanboys to camp out overnight and pay a couple of hundred dollars for the privilege of owning one of these new devices.

So what happens next?

The first few months will no doubt feature lots of reviews of how absolutely life-altering the service was (along with the inevitable backlash in the tech press.) But the service will be new enough that it will still seem like science fiction-- most people won’t actually know anyone who has the system and the whole experience will seem pretty foreign. There will be the usual debates about whether TV is responsible for the dumbing down of American culture and how a device that makes it easier to watch TV is the worst thing ever invented and a sure sign of the impending apocalypse.

At the same time, pretty much everyone else in the industry, from the other MVPDs to competing internet companies to TV set manufacturers to random VC-infused start-ups will be scrambling to introduce their own version of the magical Apple box... much to the chagrin of the various networks, who all have things like channel placement written into their retrans agreements. And while they might have reluctantly agreed to let Apple come up with a new interface, that agreement did not, in their minds, extend to the rest of the industry. So expect lots of lawsuits around the "me too" players.

And the Apple TV may or may not succeed. Because by the time it comes out, the early adopters, the people who put up with the glitches and crashes and Fail Whales, may have gotten so used to watching TV in a completely nonlinear fashion that anything linear-- no matter how cool it is-- is going to be greeted with a giant collective yawn.

Or not-- the inherent “Apple-ness” of the product may still be enough to get a critical mass of fan boys on board and with them, a similarly critical mass of second-stage adopters.

Whatever happens, I will make two predictions that don’t feel a lot like going out on a limb: (a) there will be lots of lawyers and legal wrangling involved and (b) the final product, no matter whose product it is-- Apple, Google, Intel or someone else-- will not be nearly as revolutionary as insiders hoped it would be.

At first.

In business, victories are won slowly, in increments. And then, suddenly, all at once.



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