Paying For It: The Future of Online Television

We remember when the word ‘television’ referred exclusively to the tangible object which all your furniture pointed at, but these days it’s very much a concept. We have catch-up television, interactive television, the internet on your television and of course ..television all over the internet. As such, fewer people are relying on traditional TV sets and commercial-laden regular programming, instead opting for instant online alternatives.

Whether it’s on your computer, iPad or even your phone, non-traditional viewing is getting more popular every day, but how is this effecting your favorite programmes and channels? How do the people behind the shows feel about this new trend, what is the future of streaming television and most importantly, are we all going to have to start paying for it?

It’s no surprise that online television is becoming the method of choice for more people every day. If you’re watching TV on your laptop there’s no need to adhere to a channel’s schedule and services like BBC’s iPlayer, ITV Player and Sky Go allow you to watch your favorites whenever you have the time, with fewer commercials and basically the same quality. But with the dramatic rise in the number of channels over the last decade, it’s also just a matter of time. Someone who wants to watch Young Apprentice and I’m A Celebrity, has to either record one with their SKY remote or watch one later on the iPlayer. You know what they say about necessity and invention.

Back in July ITV chief executive Adam Crozier explained that the broadcaster wanted to experiment with a charges structure but there’s a definite fear of taking that first step in some quarters. Just as The Times introduced a pay-wall on its site last year, in the face of increased content generation, some channels might be tempted to introduce some sort of membership package for their catch-up services and charge for the most popular content.

Many believe it’s inevitable that online television will replace its traditional predecessor (even if you are watching it on your fat plasma in your living room) and every major network’s streaming content is seeing steady growth. When it first launched, iPlayer’s popularity skyrocketed from 1.2 million total stream and download requests in January 2008 to 21.8 million by May. It is estimated that 40% of households that are connected to the web use their computers to watch television, but with so many people streaming television, it might only be a matter of time until we all have to start paying something for it.

Having an extensive archive, however, can bring problems along with benefits. Large archives are expensive to maintain, server farms and mass storage is needed along with ample bandwidth to transmit it all and vast archives can be hard to catalogue in a way that is accessible to users. As such, the BBC keep costs relatively low by only featuring programmes aired over the last seven days on the iPlayer, but their commercial competitors have a little more freedom in this regard. Channel 4’s online service 4OD Catch-up currently houses programmes which were originally aired several years ago and as such, viewers can watch whole series of shows like Monarchy or The Inbetweeners.

This is of course supplemented by increased advertising (you have to watch four ads before you even get to an episode of Inbetweeners, with a two ad break in the centre) but many industry experts are wondering if this road will eventually lead to one-off charges for the most popular content. As Adam Crozier said back in July.. “We want to test what viewers are willing to pay for..” Bloody capitalists.