With Siri TV, Apple Will Dismantle the TV Networks

Steve Jobs died without fully transforming television, but the day after before he passed away, Apple unveiled Siri, its natural language interface. Though it’s currently only embedded in the new iPhone 4S, Siri could eventually change the face of the TV industry.

Notice I said “TV industry.”

Most observers and analysts believe that Siri’s voice commands could eliminate the need for those clunky TV remote controls. With the blurring and exponential proliferation of television and Web content, telling your TV what you’d like to watch, instead of scrolling through a nearly infinite number of program possibilities, makes a lot more sense.

But from my perspective, Siri’s greatest impact won’t ultimately be on users, or on device manufacturers (though they certainly risk losing market share to Apple). It will be on the TV industry’s content creators and packagers. Why? Because a voice-controlled television interface will fundamentally disrupt the six-decade-old legacy structure of networks, channels and programs. And that’s a legacy that — until now, at least — has been carried forward from analog to digital.

There’s an important underlying precedent here.

If the Internet can be generalized to have one effect across every industry that moves online, that effect would be disaggregation. Choices go from finite to infinite. Navigation goes from sequential to random access. And audiences choose content by the item far more than by the collection. We’ve gone from the packaged and channelized to the unbound and itemized. Autonomous albums are fragmented into songs; series into clips; and magazines and newspapers into articles and individual photos.

As much as we may think that has already happened with video, it is nothing compared to the great leveling that will occur in the voice-controlled living room. Voice-controlled TV means direct navigation to individual episodes, programs and clips. And it will almost certainly lead to a discernible deconstruction of the network and channel structure — not to mention the decomposition of even the aggregated marketplaces like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.

Here’s the simple reason: No one is going to sit on their couch and say, “Siri, show me NBC’s ‘Community.’” In a voice-activated world, monikers like “NBC” become useless. They don’t stand for anything meaningful to the consumer. They’re just remnants of a decrepit channel structure that’s unraveling. And, in the end, they’ll simply connote the fast-fading allure of mid-20th century mass appeal.

To be sure, the TV majors will lose much of their ability to realize network effects. Already, you’re hearing less about “lead in” and “lead out.” What you are hearing more about, however, is disconnected videos. A program on YouTube, for instance, will sit on a level voice-controlled playing field with an NBC show, and that field will soon become even more level, because Siri will eliminate the menus that structure the artificial hierarchies of content collections.

So how will we be able to get network effects back in video? Let’s look at four possible ways:

  • Branded Content — Players can build a strong brand that stands for something with their audiences. Break.com, Discovery and Oprah are all meaningful and build long-term customer loyalty. (“Siri, show me new TED Talks.”)
  • Curation — Brand the collection with a curation strategy so that the curator’s name and stamp of approval means something to the audience. (“Siri, show me Jason Hirschhorn’s latest movie suggestions.”)
  • Social — In the fully social world that we expect to see, focusing on the virality of content means you tap the human distribution network and social operating system. (“Siri, show me what videos my friends are watching.”)
  • Personal — We’ve already seen the extraordinary value of well-tuned personalized recommendations, with Netflix’s notable prize and other famed stories of the benefits of great recommendations. Increasingly, our own patterns of individual videos and the brands we affiliate with, along with recommendations from friends, will be combined into personalized recommendations we won’t even have to ask for. I have no doubt that Siri will be as good a “Genius” as iTunes is at recommending what else to watch. Ultimately, in the age of data, whoever knows the most about us will be able to give us the best experience.

Beyond disaggregation, personalization is ultimately the most powerful consumer value of digital media. My mother’s TV experience was to walk over to her TV set and turn a dial to select among three channels to satisfy her individuality. But in the next generation, no two people will receive the same recommendations from the millions of content choices available.

Before he died, Jobs now famously told Walter Isaacson, his biographer, that he had finally cracked the TV code. It’s unclear what Jobs meant, what this entailed or what he thought it would lead to in the years to come. So, barring further posthumous disclosure, Jobs’s own predictions of his ripple effects will be a media mystery for now.

One thing that’s clear, though, is that Jobs’s Siri will start the dismantling — or creative destruction — of the TV industry as we’ve known it for the last 60 years.

This post originally stated that Siri was unveiled the day after Steve Jobs passed away. It’s been corrected to reflect that the announcement actually occurred the day before.

Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a next-generation media company that is reinventing the media model on the social web. Ben is also author of Digital Quarters, a blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile (NILE).


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