Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - How will we watch TV in five years?
It's an apropos question fresh off the International CES trade show in Las Vegas, where lust-worthy Ultra High-Definition 4K televisions were ubiquitous. CES is also where I moderated a panel on that very topic, with top TV executives from Starz, Twitter and Verizon.
The question goes beyond the physical TV that will anchor your home theater. It touches on how you'll find what to watch, how you'll pay to watch it, and how and where it will be delivered. The broadband pipe will be faster. Your social networks will remain major influences. And you can expect the usual mix of pricey-to-produce glitz and popular series, cheaper homegrown-type videos and everything in between - including, of course, live news and sports.
Take it as a given that by 2019, some of you, perhaps most, will own at least one big, beautiful 4K TV boasting four times the resolution of HDTV. It may well be a curved TV similar to those shown at CES, assuming curved TVs aren't some passing fancy. Your TV of the future might even "bend" from flat to curved and back, similar to TVs that Samsung and LG had on display. Maybe that centerpiece television will also let you watch 3D TV without the glasses, assuming anyone still gives a hoot about 3D on a home TV.
Let's also presume that five years hence, you won't have to pay an arm and a leg for a sterling television. Sure, you'll probably pay a premium for an OLED TV or another vibrant display tech that emerges, given how expensive OLEDs are today. But 4K TVs have already fallen to more relatively modest levels, with Vizio cracking the $1,000 barrier for a 50-inch 4K model.
Just as you can catch up on favorite programs on a tablet or smartphone today, you'll probably be more inclined to do so. You might also have the option of watching on a smart watch or wrist TV, or some type of high-tech spectacles that will make Google Glass seem primitive.
"You're going to watch on all those things," says Fred Graver, who heads up Twitter's TV efforts. "You're going to want some great, cool, wonderful TV in your home for the kind of big immersive experiences. And then you're going to want something great to watch on your commute or when you're traveling."
Graver said the most interesting stuff he saw around CES was the way the industry is trying to rework the electronic programming guides that consumers have traditionally used to figure out what to watch. Instead of you finding the content, the content may find you. The trick, he says, is marrying Twitter data on shows you watch to your cable account so that you get recommendations that matter.
Verizon's top TV executive, Shawn Strickland, says all the relevant players are trying to personalize the experience. He believes systems will deliver stuff you'll want to watch based on the context in which you use personal devices, from your cellphone to your Xbox One.
Twitter's Graver can envision a scenario in which you're wearing a device that monitors what you're thinking. "You're watching a comedy, and you're thinking to yourself, 'Oh, that's funny,' and everybody on your network is thinking that's funny. And then there's a speaker that translates it into a laugh track, an actual real laugh. You'd suddenly be re-immersed into the theater." Think modern-day I Love Lucy laugh tracks.
Adds Starz TV strategist John Penney: "Your personalized device - your phone or tablet - becomes the remote control for the cloud, delivering the content to you whether it's in that big screen, through socially enabled discovery, or to the back of a car seat or an airplane."
All the usual industry suspects have a stake in the future of television, of course, which is embodied by the fact, Graver says, that you have six remote controls on your coffee table. "The last thing (stakeholders are) holding onto is what you use to change the channel."
Strickland says Verizon is having its own internal debate: "Do we even need a guide anymore that sits on a TV or gaming console?" It's not an easy answer. Such guides generate tremendous traffic, and half the people who sit down to watch TV don't actually know what it is they're going to watch.
In the future, that may matter less, when the content finds you.
Meanwhile, Strickland is willing to make one other tongue-in-cheek prediction about TV five years from now: "I think they'll kill off everybody in Downton Abbey by then," he quips.