Netflix, Cable Companies, and the Evolution of Video

Last week, Wired ran a piece entitled "Netflix Everywhere: Sorry Cable, You're History." It makes a salient point about the contrast between cable's current content-delivery system and the general internet-age trend towards personalization and individualization:

It is odd, in an era when the Internet seems able to worm its way into every part of life, that nearly all of us still watch television the old-fashioned way, piped over cable or beamed in by satellite and available only in bloated packages of channels programmed by network executives.

The point is well-taken. However, I don't buy the underlying premise of the article - that Netflix is in direct competition with cable companies. Netflix is, first and foremost, an internet-based service for renting or watching movies - hence the name Netflix. Yes, Netflix also lets you watch plenty of TV shows, but only after they have been released on DVD. This is fundamentally different from what cable companies offer, which is access to a wide variety of live programming or "new" content.

Rather than framing this as a fight between Netflix and cable, it might be better to think of how cable companies can learn from Netflix's success. And indeed, it seems that they are learning most of the right lessons - several cable companies and Verizon are all launching pilot IPTV programs which will eventually offer much of the same functionality as Netflix, but for new television programming. These services, it seems to me, are likely to peacefully co-exist, and what little overlap there is seems unproblematic.

My hope is that the cable companies really push this effort to its logical conclusion. I recently canceled my cable TV subscription because I found I was wasting too much time watching things I didn't really care about - there were lots of channels, but not much on at any given time that held my interest. However, add a robust recommendation engine and the ability to choose when to watch - an interactive "Dan channel" that would likely consist of the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, the Wire, and sports - and I'd certainly reconsider my decision.