For the second year in a row, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and its flacks in the gadget press have designated smart TV as one of the “big stories” to emerge out of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. As they had in 2010, exhibitors at this year’s CES showcased an array of proprietary (and incompatible) systems for accessing Internet content (including social networking platforms and video distribution hubs) on television screens. In their keynotes, press conferences, and booth swag, Sony, Sharp, Samsung, Toshiba, LG, and countless smaller startups laid claim to the status of Nemur and Strauss to television’s Charlie, promising that their hardware, operating system, or app store would be the one to “‘redefine’ television” once and for all. (Notably reticent, however, was Google, which in the weeks before the show had asked its partners to shelve their GoogleTV devices while it made badly-needed tweaks to the platform’s OS.)
If the hoopla accompanying the latest smart TV gadgets sounded familiar, it was because it was: consumer electronics manufacturers have been eager to play Flowers for Algernon with television since long before the current obsession with convergence took hold. As far back as the 1940s electronics companies have boasted that various products would bump up television’s IQ and the IQs of its viewers. Before it was television sets with built-in WiFi cards and Pandora apps it was remote controls and video players that manufacturers assured us would make television and its viewers more intelligent. While such claims typically originate within promotional contexts (including advertisements, sales materials, and trade shows), they draw their legitimacy from their re-circulation through other discursive contexts. Throughout television’s history policymakers, pundits, scholars, and journalists have enthusiastically (and, quite frankly, irresponsibly) echoed manufacturers’ claims that television’s reinvention as a “smart” technology was imminent and inevitable. In the process, they helped translate one the consumer electronics industry’s most hoary marketing tropes into television’s equivalent of Moore’s Law. Call this axiom “Sarnoff’s Law” after its earliest exponent: television will become “better” (aesthetically, socially, morally) as its technology gets “smarter.” This misbegotten faith in Sarnoff’s Law and the inevitability of television’s technological salvation shapes television regulation, content creation, criticism, and consumption today as it has for much of the medium’s past.
To be fair, smart TV is smart, but not for the reasons its promoters would have us believe. Smart TV is brilliant from the standpoint of consumer electronics manufacturers, to whom it offers new ways of accelerating lagging television set replacement cycles. When television sets come preloaded with operating systems, their manufacturers gain the ability to obsolete an entire generation of receivers by simply releasing a backwards-incompatible software update. You know what that means - no longer will manufacturers be required to rely on their friends at the FCC to compel consumers to upgrade their sets! Smart TV also holds a definite appeal for program producers and distributors, as it allows them to partner with manufacturers to lock their content within walled gardens. No wonder MSOs (a growing number of which own or are acquiring studios) are getting behind the consumer electronics industry’s current smart TV push.
Viewed from the couch, however, smart TV looks...well, it looks pretty damn stupid. So far, manufacturers have opted against working together to set industry-wide standards for Internet-connected television devices. As a result, there are at present no less than ten smart TV platforms vying for space in consumers’ living rooms, the majority of which are destined to go the way of Betamax and HD DVD once the marketplace settles on a winner. Even the most refined of these platforms offer only poor facsimiles of the user experiences Web video viewers are accustomed to having on their laptops. So rather than pay a couple of hundred dollars for the privilege of beta testing Google’s alphas, I think for the time being I’ll stick to good old fashioned stupid TV. Now you’ll have to excuse me – Jersey Shore is coming on.