Watch different

Maybe it’s because I like the underdog, or maybe it’s because I’m a full-time television critic. But that $500 cell phone everyone’s been waiting for does nothing for me. It’s the other new Apple product, the $299 Apple TV, that has my full attention.

When it was finally released in late March, the Apple TV collected reviews ranging from disappointment to nice pats on the head. On the discussion boards, new Apple TV owners spent more time talking about the product they wished they had—one with 1,080i high definition, Dolby 5.1 audio, external hard-drive support, and so on—rather than the one sitting in their living rooms.

Few, if any, observers seemed to appreciate just what a game-changing product Apple has unleashed on the world. Maybe it takes a TV critic to point it out.

Riches from niches?

To explain, let me start with a story about the late NBC visionary Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, who created Today and The Tonight Show and shaped the business model of network television. After his NBC days were done, Weaver tried to get TV stations interested in renting him their unused overnight hours. The plan was to broadcast fine arts programming at forlorn hours of the night. Subscribers to Weaver’s service would set their VCRs to tape the programs while they snoozed.

This primitive DVR was Weaver’s attempt to solve a problem he’d had at NBC, where he struggled to keep the fine arts showcase Omnibus going. He realized that many kinds of programs couldn’t survive in the jungle of ad-supported television, and new ecosystems would have to be invented for them.

Needless to say, Weaver’s idea went to the grave with him. We have a lot of so-called niche cable channels, but they are tailored to broad demographic groups like 12- to 24-year-old males. There is a fine arts cable channel out there, though I dare you to find it.

Meanwhile, out on the Internet, the exact opposite of television is going on. Everyone with a Web cam and three hours to kill—basically, the entire 12- to 24-year-old male demographic—is churning out clips and swapping them at Flash video bazaars. The scene is so chaotic that it cries out for some order. And, predictably, order is emerging, as the media giants muscle in and make the new medium seem not so new. Almost immediately after Google swallowed up YouTube, its home page turned into a billboard for Google’s content partners, like PBS and NBC.

I’m sure that people looking for clips from 30 Rock (great show, by the way) appreciate the convenience. But I don’t want more of the programs I already get on TV. I want something like TV 2.0: TV that’s never been on my TV. I want programs that meet the aesthetic requirements of television—that is, state-of-the-art video content—but also expand the vocabulary of TV beyond the corporate lexicon that has constrained TV these past 60 years.

TV 2.0

The only way we will achieve TV 2.0 is if this new video content, whether streamed or stored, is as easy to access as the video content on cable, DVDs, and DVRs. YouTube videos are fun to watch if you’re killing time at work. But when I go home I want to be able to turn on my 55-inch big screen and watch British documentaries and my hometown minor league baseball team and Al Jazeera English and lots of other great content that, for various boring reasons, I can’t get now. And when I see something that I want to tell my readers about, I want them to be able to see it, too—not on their PCs but on their TVs.

The Apple TV is the first device I’ve seen designed to do that. The people who assert that their Slingbox is so much cooler than the Apple TV are missing the point. This isn’t about taking Seinfeld reruns I taped at home with me on the road. This is about giving me TV choices so compelling that I don’t want to waste another moment of my life on Seinfeld .

The Apple TV has something else no other device can claim: the backing of Apple Inc. I doubt any other company would have designed a system like iTunes, which allows my TV Barn podcasts to stand alongside podcasts from billion-dollar media companies. By putting an uncluttered interface on democratized content distribution, the Apple TV will do another end run around the TV business (just like the one Jobs did two years ago when he signed the deal with Disney that launched the on-demand TV revolution). Only this time, Apple will do a video deal not just with people who have something to sell, but with anyone who has something to say.

[ Aaron Barnhart is the television critic at the Kansas City Star and has run the TV Barn Web site since 1999. ]

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