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Guest Commentary: The TV Debate -- Transformation vs. Revolution

With all the buzz surrounding cordcutting, AirPlay/Apple TV, the death of TV, and over-the-top (OTT) programming, if there’s one thing we learned from the 2012 London Olympics, it’s this: People still love kicking back and watching traditional broadcasting. Albeit with a few big hiccups, NBC streamed most of the Olympics live online and later showcased marquee events during primetime.

Between the live streams, real-time access to event scoring and the medal count, we have never had this much access to the Olympics in history. Nearly every major event was available online, and usage was tremendous. But what everyone fails to recognize is the fact that we did not give up the good old, big-screen, traditional television. NBC’s taped coverage averaged 31.5 million viewers per night in primetime, up 12 percent from Beijing in 2008. According to NBC, many people who watched the events streamed live to a Web browser also watched them again on television!

The important point that many of us in tech-land miss in our pontifications about “the end of TV” is that mainstream culture really enjoys TV. No question, ondemand, instant access to great programs on the iPad is one of the coolest things ever. But what the Olympics reinforced is that there’s little evidence of substitution. Rather, people love new options for consuming video, and don’t want to give up their “traditional TV.”

A New Way of Looking at TV

Maybe we need to stop thinking of cable TV the way we think of phone service. It’s easy for all of us technologists to predict that streaming video will do to cable companies what Skype did to the telcos, but I propose a new lens to ! lter TV-technologies: an app that replaces broadcast television is like saying Yelp should replace McDonald’s.

There’s a clear distinction that applies to all apps or Web services. Great apps come in two flavors—those that are Revolutionary and those that are Transformative.

Revolutionary apps fundamentally overthrow an analog provider with a digital alternative. Examples: Skype is a substitute for your landline. iTunes is a substitute for Virgin Megastore. Warby Parker is a substitute for buying glasses from your neighborhood optometrist. LinkedIn is a substitute for schmoozing. is a substitute for my pushy (but well-intentioned) Aunty in India.

Transformative apps make analog providers a more pleasing or user-friendly experience. Examples: Fandango makes going to movies predictable. Foodspotting makes finding the perfect entrée a delightful experience. Mint makes banking more manageable and transparent. Driving from San Francisco to a cabin in Tahoe is a breeze thanks to Google Maps. None of these technologies replace the desired outcome; they enhance the experience to achieve it.

My contention is that people are not asking for a TV revolution, but rather a transformation. The idea of linear, broadcast programming seems so arcane, yet no app or Website comes anywhere close to captivating our attention for nearly as long as this 70-year-old paradigm. That’s why every attempt to yank the TV experience out of television has been an abject failure. Just look at the reception to Google TV, or its predecessors Akimbo and Web TV. And if you look at your average TV viewer, it’s clear why alternatives to the traditional experience have failed.

Ninety-five percent of television programs will be viewed live this year, even though more than 50 percent of people in both the U.S. and the U.K. own a DVR. And even though Americans are disgruntled and recessionary in their outlook, they’re not abandoning TV. With 25 million people unemployed, only 1.5 million Americans have actually cut the cord on their paid-TV service. In fact, Americans spend 32 hours and 47 minutes a week watching traditional TV (4.5 hours a day!), compared to 27 minutes a week watching video online, according to Nielsen’s State of the Media report.

Isn’t the “Death of Television” and the cord-cutting movement a lot like the candidacy of Ron Paul? Everything Paul says makes sense, and you want to believe his positions are inevitable and true. But when you look around at the public reaction, you realize that there’s a zero percent chance the guy gets elected…or that people will ever stop watching broadcast TV. It behooves those of us inspired by the opportunity to innovate in the TV industry to stop thinking about a revolution and start thinking about how to transform the experience surrounding a well-entrenched behavior pattern. It also follows that the absolutely gigantic industry ($170 billion in ad spend alone) makes any kind of overnight revolution highly unlikely.

Ashwin Navin is CEO and founder of Flingo, publisher of smart TV apps whose software products are available on more than 15 million TV screens globally.