It should not be so difficult. In an age when nearly all forms of media are digital, where broadband signals course through the industrial world as surely (and as critically) as electricity and freshwater, it should be possible to sit on one’s couch, push a button or two, and call up to your television any form of video-related entertainment you desire. New-release movies. Last week’s Lost. The first season of Cosmos. Setup should not require an electrical engineering degree, and you should not be forced to sift through 10 incompatible search functions to find the shows you desire.
Yet it is not easy to watch what you want when you want to. The reasons are not easily parsed and depend as much on technological circumstance as they do on the well-placed fears of entrenched industry powers. Digital distribution threatens their business models like nothing in the history of media, but as the music industry so dramatically illustrated, fighting the consumer’s desire for limitless content is a loser’s game. “I guarantee that five years from now TV as we know it is gone,” says Doc Searls, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “It will have been a 60-year-old experiment that will be followed by something else.” The major film studios are beginning to upload onto the Web their most precious material, and a plethora of devices are emerging that promise to help the confused consumer pull the richness of the Internet into his or her television. Behind the digital scenes, battles are now taking place that will shape the future of video for decades to come.