Zeebox Boss Says Smart TV Is a Dumb Idea

An LG Smart TV with Google TV at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 11. Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

These days you can barely move for all the smart television sets on the market, as every TV manufacturer tries to wow us by producing the snazziest, most connected screens.

But even so, not everyone is a fan. Some program makers are cutting their support for smart platforms—and now other industry insiders are turning on it, too.

“When smart TVs came out I was really quite enthused by it all,” Anthony Rose, the co-founder of hot social TV app Zeebox—and a former head of the BBC’s iPlayer project—told me over the weekend. “But that enthusiasm really has declined for me, because they have failed to embrace what technology can offer.”

Rose thinks making TVs ape computers by adding apps and proprietary controls and interfaces has caused a war between manufacturers and broadcasters that has “halted innovation.”

“You can buy your beautiful new connected TV, and you can either be in the one area that watches live TV or, 18 clicks later, you can be in the app store and do something else—and no one ever goes to the app store,” he said. “On my iPad it takes about 60 seconds for zero cost to be trying some new application.”

Rose continued: “I think innovation will flourish here and that in the future your TV will be a beautiful but dumb hi-res panel that will play the content it is told to by your smartphone or tablet.”

The comments were made during a panel I moderated at MIPCube, a television and technology industry conference in Cannes, France.

Focused on the question of where the emerging investment trends were in this area, responses from the panelists—Rose was joined by Ralph Eric Kunz of Catagonia Capital, an investor in German video discovery app Tweek.tv—came loud and clear. While many are still focused on the disruption of distribution, such as IPTV or video on demand, that area is mostly covered now, they said. The future lies in developing new and interesting ways to use the plumbing.

“It feels very much like the music space 10 years ago,” said Kunz, who was one of the architects of German media group Bertelsmann’s purchase of Napster a decade ago.

Kunz added: “I think this whole plumbing era is the necessary prerequisite for the innovation era. The interesting thing is how established industry … is actually going to hedge their bets. There’s a lot of value in the old world that’s going to be destroyed.

“Without knowing what the future will look like, I think this ‘second screen’ will be a complementary way of looking at content—in some circumstances it might even be the ‘first screen.’ I think that’s one of the fascinating innovation areas of the future, to figure out how those screens interact with each other.”

Kunz believes this will come in large part through social innovations and applications that provide a companion experience to big-screen viewing—hence the investment in Tweek, which recently launched an iPad app that allows users to search for their favorite video content.

“I think in the end the question will be, is the selection process, are the criteria for selection, the ways I select, going to change?” Kunz said. “I think Facebook plays a strong role in that today, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like in the future. Tweek TV goes in that direction, to build an interface that is focused on moving content in order to make a much better selection process in future.”

Meanwhile, Rose said he believed the big disruption in TV was happening at the human level, because technology means program producers are now able to access audiences in ways that weren’t possible before.

“Back in the old days before the Internet, the audience would engage with the broadcaster—the broadcaster created a channel and an aggregation and schedule things, and the audience were there and the broadcaster would buy content, and the content provider or owner really had no direct audience engagement,” Rose said. “Then came the Internet, and the makers of Glee could set up a website—but they were disconnected. Now with the rise of second-screen viewing, with companion viewing, there’s a way for the content producer to connect directly to the audience.”

According to Rose, large producers can now create applications and experiences that audiences can use to deepen their link to the program. And that could leave broadcasters as little more than a pipeline.

“The broadcaster, who today is a distributor, a channel, and a content provider, may ultimately be like an ISP, and the audience engages directly with the program maker. That’s one way it may play out.”

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