There are several large quite expensive pieces of electronic equipment in my house and in most homes that are the site of a long overdue technological revolution. Despite being in the “Internet Age”, most of these large chunks of hardware do not connect to the internet. While evolving from a large industrial age box to a flat screen and even curved screens, they only recently went digital and are among the dumbest pieces of electronic equipment currently in use.
I am of course talking about TV sets. My refrigerator is almost as intelligent. My iPod-connected sound system is definitely smarter and our cars positively brim with computer, satellite and, increasingly, internet connectivity.
So Google’s recent Australian launch of Chromecast is no surprise. The TV industry has left the door to a A$4 billion vault wide open by continuing to broadcast re-runs of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s sitcoms and soaps along with copycat cooking and home renovation shows with just enough live sport and news breaks to get us away from our notebooks and tablets occasionally. Pay TV was going to bring Nirvana with 10 squillion channels and unlimited choice, but all we got were B-grade movies and even more copycat cooking and “reno” shows.
Media cutbacks have eroded quality in news and our sympathies and concerns must go with our dwindling cadre of employed journalists. But what has the rest of Australia’s TV industry been doing with its profits over the years and what are they thinking? The axing of Ten Network’s breakfast program Wake Up after attracting an average of just 30,000 viewers are signs of the formulaic (read old formula) approach of TV in Australia.
Little wonder that Google has plugged itself into the under-utilised TV sets of Australian homes by launching Chromecast, which started in the US in July last year with immediate success. For those who have been asleep or watching broadcast TV, Chromecast is, in Google’s words, “a thumb-sized media streaming device that plugs into the HDMI port of your TV set”.
More specifically, it is a A$49 USB thumb-drive size “dongle” that wirelessly connects TV sets to the internet and turns them into internet media hubs. That means users can watch movies, music videos, and other content available online.
But the relative paucity of quality content is likely to take the shine off its launch in Australia. In the US, Chromecast can access Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and a range of live sports shows including Major League Baseball. However, so far, Chromecast users in Australia will only be able to access content from the ABC’s iView service, the Quickflix media rental service, and Foxtel’s fledgling movie service Presto, along with Google’s purchase service for movies and TV shows.
While commending Chromecast as cheap, easy and simple, reviewers have also pointed out the product does not come with a remote control, so users have to use a smartphone, iPad or computer to operate it. There are also other products such as Roku that offer a wider range of content – albeit Australian users need a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access Roku services.
Google Chromecast is also swelling a rising tide of concern around media monopolisation and the company’s position in the emerging megamedia landscape.
Google will use not only use Chromecast to launch a takeover of TV, but it will also use it to cross-promote Google Chrome, Chromebooks, and other Google apps. You can be sure that Google Search will favour Chromecast content.
The founder of the independent community Weblog publisher MetaFilter, Matt Haughy, recently hit out at Google’s domination and control of media content, claiming that a change in the company’s advertising and page-ranking algorithms caused a 40% collapse in MetaFilter’s advertising revenue. Salon columnist Andrew Leonard says Google’s page-ranking algorithms “determine whether publishing outlets live or die”. Will it be the same for TV and online video?
Ben Bagdikian’s book, The New Media Monopoly pointed out that five megacorporations dominated the world’s media content during the late twentieth century.
After a brief euphoria about the the internet democratising media, we again face a situation in which a few corporate giants - Google, Facebook, and Microsoft - are gaining control of cultural production and distribution.
RIP traditional TV
However, after watching several minutes of blatant promotion of gambling integrated into the sports commentary, as well as gambling ads during the State of Origin Round One on broadcast TV, I might give Chromecast a go.
As the chief product officer of Netflix Neil Hunt said recently, traditional TV is dying. He forecast an end to TV commercials, programs that are 48 minutes long to comply with the tyranny of prime time and advertising schedules, and “cliffhangers” that leave viewers in suspense and frustrated.
I expect more from the biggest screen in my house and, once again, traditional mass media have failed to deliver.