Holograms, lasers and speed-watching: the future of TV
As Netflix trials a service that will allow viewers to blitz through shows, Ed Power looks at the new technology and content shaping the industry
These are strange and interesting times for Netflix. In late November, the streaming giant will smack us about the chops with its most shameless bid yet for an Oscar sweep in the form of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. But the month also sees Disney debut its 'Netflix killer' streaming service, kicking off with Jon Favreau's new Star Wars series The Mandalorian. It's going to be a tussle for the ages. Netflix is by no means guaranteed victory.
As if that wasn't enough for the binge-watch behemoth to worry about - and it obviously is - it has just brought down the wrath of Hollywood with the revelation it has been trialling a new 'speed-watch' facility. If rolled out, this would allow subscribers to blitz through shows at 1.5 the regular speed - just as some of us already do when listening to podcasts or watching YouTube. You might think this would be a useful service in an age of infinite content in which there's so much TV to get through, it's hard to know where to start (you've promised yourself you'll catch up on HBO's new Watchmen as soon as you've finished The Boys, Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol etc, etc).
And it is also the case that a lot of what passes for prestige TV today is quite 'ploddy'. Imagine how much better Dublin Murders, on BBC and RTÉ, would be if it was incrementally pacier. The show manages to be simultaneously fascinating and boring; the option of viewing at 1.5 speed would benefit it hugely.
The same applies to Mad Men, early Breaking Bad, every voguish scandi-noir ever and John Carney's Modern Love on Amazon - which, as it stands, is the home entertainment equivalent of being clubbed unconscious by a giant Hallmark teddy bear. But Hollywood has never been slow in shouting down a good idea - whether that be releasing big-name movies straight to streaming or not sexually harassing young actresses.
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And so there is a backlash against Netflix's speed-watch trials (which the company has pointed out are being conducted on its android service, with no plans for further roll-out).
The outcry has been led by director/producer Judd Apatow. Which is ironic, as anyone who endured This Is 40 or Trainwreck will know that some movies really would benefit from being wrapped up as swiftly as possible.
"No Netflix no," he tweeted. "Don't make me have to call every director and show creator on Earth to fight you on this. Save me the time. I will win, but it will take a ton of time. Don't f*** with our timing. We give you nice things. Leave them as they were intended to be seen."
Whether or not Hollywood indeed gives us "nice things" can obviously be debated - especially if you've just sat through Will Smith in Gemini Man. The wider point is that Apatow and "every director and show creator on Earth" can protest all they like. Change is coming to television and, whether Netflix gets there first or not, speed-watching is surely inevitable.
The future is always rushing towards us at an alarming clip. But in TV especially, the upheavals feel particularly imminent. Not every new technology catches on, of course. 3D television, for instance, has been declared deader than the doomed Game Of Thrones spin-off about the White Walkers.
"Let's not beat around the bush: 3D TV is dead," wrote Lifewire last May. "It's sad news for those who are 3D fans, but it's time to face facts. No 3D TVs are being made. In fact, most manufacturers stopped making them in 2016."
Nonetheless, new technology is incoming. Samsung has patented a three-dimensional menu system utilising holographic technology which, if implemented, would resemble Tony Stark's interface on Iron Man. Holograms are themselves expected to become the hot new tech in home entertainment. Whether they catch on or prove merely another 3D-style gimmick is harder to tell.
Still, manufacturers are taking a punt on the technology taking off. Researchers in South Korea have recently achieved the breakthrough of a hologram that can be viewed through 360 degrees and which stands over three metres tall. This is achieved through the use of "high powered" lasers - which everyone obviously wants in their living room - and a rotating mirror display.
But the future of television is as likely to be driven by content as by technology. As RTÉ's current difficulties underscore, a generation has decoupled from traditional broadcast viewing and instead grown up on streaming TV (if you asked my kids who or what RTÉ is, they would shrug).
And with Netflix soon to be joined by Apple TV +, HBO Max, Disney + and others, the outlook for traditional broadcasters is likely to grow even grimmer. That's one of several potential outcomes identified by accounting giant Deloitte. In a study earlier this year, it outlined four plausible scenarios in broadcasting by the year 2030.
"Traditional media concepts are a thing of the past, the entire industry is undergoing fundamental change," it writes. "Streaming services are no longer just platforms for the consumption of films and TV programmes, now they are investing in the production and licensing of globally successful own content - and are thus in direct competition with the traditional TV and video industry."
The first possible outcome is the advent of a "Universal Supermarket", where streaming services are dominant and we watch our television exclusively on demand. There would still be "local" content - but this would be provided by streaming companies, which will have the technology to cater to every niche and viewing whim.
"Similar to large supermarkets, each opens an extensive range of global and national content. Broadcasting as we know it today has disappeared," says Deloitte.
But there is another possible future where "content providers", such as the big Hollywood studios and networks like HBO are calling the shots. Again, it's difficult to see where relative pygmies such as RTÉ fit, and it is likely the company will have to go further than flogging off some extraneous artwork to remain solvent.
"Large global content owners are the winners… bypassing the platforms [i.e. Netflix] and establishing direct customer relationships… Smaller producers [cough RTÉ cough] have been pushed out of the market."
Could national broadcasters strike back? The BBC, for instance, has done well with its iPlayer. Conversely, the less said about Montrose's excruciating RTÉPlayer the better. Perhaps there is a route to survival for these legacy broadcasters, Deloitte suggests.
"Revenge of the Broadcasters" would be a scenario in which national broadcasters "developed excellent digital capabilities" and take on Netflix, Amazon etc head to head. Might RTÉ stand toe to toe with Netflix and Amazon in terms of quality and digital innovation? Possibly - though it's hard to imagine any non-dystopian scenario where this proves the case.
And, finally, says Deloitte, there is the slightly appalling possibly that we will become "lost in diversity". Streaming services, monolithic studios and flagging legacy broadcasters will continue to vie for our attention and there will be much too much content of widely varying quality.
However the future plays out, it is clear big upheavals are on the way. So if tender souls such as Judd Apatow are clutching pearls over the possibility that viewers might soon be able to watch their favourite show at 1.5 times regular speed, they had best take a seat and breathe deeply. That's merely the tip of the existential iceberg.