TCS Daily


The Video Future Approacheth

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Congress, as usual, is behind the times. The molasses-like transition to high-definition TV continues in its glacial pace, but Congress is nonetheless voting to subsidize consumers as the switch takes place:

Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said Congress needs to do something to help consumers with the older analog sets, an estimated 21 million households. "If we're mandating this (digital) conversion, we cannot leave people behind because they can't afford" digital television sets, he said. . . .

 

The subsidy program would be paid for by money raised from the auction of the analog spectrum the broadcasters are vacating. The subsidy would be available for all those households with older televisions, and it would pay for converter boxes for all the TVs in a particular household, regardless of financial status.

 

Stevens estimates that the converter boxes would cost about $50. His plan would call for the government to pay roughly $40, and the consumer would make a co-payment of $10.

 

I suppose that there are worse ways to waste the taxpayers' money -- I can't actually think of any at the moment, but given Congress's ingenuity I suppose that Ted Stevens and his colleagues probably could -- but this strikes me as pretty pathetic, especially when the government is laying off scientists for lack of money. Subsidizing TV and starving science seems like a recipe for something short of national greatness.

 

Meanwhile, technology is, as usual, passing Congress by. Because while the long-planned switch to HDTV creeps along, video technology is advancing by leaps and bounds in areas that, in what I'm pretty sure isn't really a coincidence, Congress hasn't managed to get its hands on yet. The result, widespread video podcasting, is likely to bring about something far more revolutionary than higher resolution commercial broadcasts: It might actually produce TV that people want to watch.

 

Podcasting is already big, with people producing "radio" programs for Internet distribution using nothing more than a computer and an Internet connection. Video podcasting will make producing and distributing TV programming nearly as easy. Podcasting and audio MP3 technology have demonstrated pretty clearly that in the audio world people care more about hearing what they want, when they want, than they care about super high sound quality. I suspect that video podcasting will demonstrate the same thing: a pretty good picture coupled with a show that you actually like is worth more than a stupendous picture coupled with a show you don't care about that much. And according to some people, the Video iPod is already good enough to ensure that video podcasting will be "huge."

 

If Congress cared about promoting video distribution technology, it could do a lot -- without even spending taxpayer dollars -- by reforming intellectual property law to make it easier on amateur producers and distributors. (Some general advice on that, from J.D. Lasica, can be found here.) That seems like a better enterprise than forking out taxpayer dollars to help buy set-top boxes, but one that's unlikely to materialize since it would involve making the entertainment industry unhappy.

 

On the other hand, I should probably be thankful that Congress doesn't seem to "get" the coming video revolution. As its behavior with HDTV has demonstrated, Congress isn't much good at helping new technologies along anyway, and it may well be that in these overregulated times technologies need to be fast, nimble, and below the radar to flourish. In the 21st Century, at least, Congress's biggest contribution to promoting the progress of science and the useful arts may sometimes be to overlook them until they've become a reality.

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