The future of... your TV, music collection and sittingroom

Illustration: Digital Vision/Getty

For a long time not much changed with TV. It was a case of stick on the telly, pick your channel, watch whatever you were given, and if you didn’t like it you could either turn it off or write a strongly-worded letter to Mailbag.

There was a box. There were a few channels. There were programmes. And for a while you could record as much as a videotape could hold, but still circled those listings in the RTÉ Guide for fear of missing out.

If you wanted to watch a new movie you went to the cinema – sometimes months after it had come out across the Atlantic. If you missed that you could wait until such time as it was possible to trek down to Xtravision in the hope of grabbing the latest release, only to find the handful of copies were already gone from the shelves.

You could always wait for the movie to be on TV. And wait. And wait some more. And then, inevitably, miss it.

For years little changed.

And then, with astonishing speed, it changed completely.

3D was going to save cinemas and become the TV norm. The big electronics companies insisted on it. The retailers echoed this. It didn’t happen

For the sake of this piece on the future of entertainment we’ll concentrate largely on what might happen in your home. For all the changes in distribution and the business of making movies, it’s still a dark room with a big screen and a projector, and it does feel like, despite attempts to push us into fancier more expensive experiences, we’re going to be happy with that for a while.

The music business has changed utterly – CD sales peaked as long ago as 2000 – and has quickly settled into a very simple paradigm: you have every song in the world in your pocket.

But with home entertainment (a term which still has the smack of VHS about it) there’s a battle for the future on a couple of fronts, and no one can be sure how it’s going to play out.

A decade ago only the foolhardy would have guessed that Netflix – then a DVD postal service – would become an entertainment giant, maker of Oscar-winning films, complex dramas, brilliant comedies, ho-hum sci-fi, and hoarder of Friends?

It is not even 10 years since Netflix went into streaming, announced it would make its own programmes, and quickly became the king after which everyone else is now coming after.

Who would have guessed that Amazon – a website originally best known for selling books and CDs – would earn 47 Emmy nominations this year?

How many could have been certain that YouTube would become so all pervasive that it would in effect become as much a “TV” experience as RTÉ, BBC or any of the traditional channels?

Instead, back in 2010 – when Netflix was revving up on its journey to near dominance of streaming – there were other predictions about how entertainment would pan out. And the big thing was going to be 3D.

3D was going to save the cinemas. Avatar director James Cameron was pretty pushy about it all. 3D was going to become the TV norm. The big electronics companies insisted on it. The retailers echoed this.

It didn’t happen.

Already electronics companies have stopped making that 3D-compatible set. And 2010 turned out to be the peak for 3D movie box office takings.

For all that so much has changed, one thing hasn’t. Give us a a screen on a wall and, as long as the picture is good, we’re happy

It looks as much of a fad as it did the first time around. And it reminds us that for all that so much has changed, one thing hasn’t. Give us a a screen on a wall and, as long as the picture is good, we’re happy.

And yet, and yet… It just might be that these attempts to get 3D off the ground will be early jabs from an idea that could finally break through. And that idea? Total immersion. Being in a story, a game, a concert, a match. Or perhaps even being part of it.

Before we get to the “how” and “what” of future entertainment, there’s the more immediate question of the “who”.

The next few years will see the old giants lumbering back into view having let the more nimble newcomers get a head start. Having just taken over 21st Century Fox, Disney is leading the way among those keen to topple Netflix. The jostling for your money by various rivals will make the next few years a bit of a battlefield.

There are huge challenges for traditional broadcasters such as RTÉ. The satellite packages are losing out too, with the decline in US cable subscriptions sharp as people move out of home and don’t see the need to pay for something they feel they already get from the streaming services.

Meanwhile, by the end of last year there were more Netflix subscriptions in the UK than there were for Sky, with Sky forecast to lose another 55,000 households over the course of 2019.

Much as newspapers have to factor in a generation with next to no experience of reading a traditional newspaper, there is a similar cohort coming through for whom “television” is a malleable notion.

YouTube is – in the US at least – the most watched platform of all. It claims that 250 million hours of its content is watched on US television sets rather than phones, tablets or computers. It reaches more 19-45 eyeballs a week than all the US cable channels combined.

“We compete with [and lose to] Fortnite more than HBO, ” read a recent letter from Netflix to its shareholders. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time.”

If we can be certain about anything it’s that the quality of the picture will continue to get sharper and sharper until you can see every last pore on the newsreader’s face

When it comes to the device you’ll watch everything on, in one respect it is expected to be pretty much as it always was – for the time being at least. No matter the number of screens within grabbing distance, it seems safe to predict there’ll long be a desire for the big TV screen in your sittingroom.

Still, there’ll be a push to shake things up a bit.

3D TVs are no longer of much interest, in parallel with the diminishing interest in 3D movies. The crowing about curved TV screens seemed to die out before it ever got started, just as giant Imax screens didn’t take over from the standard cinema screen.

Nevertheless, if we can be certain about anything it’s that the quality of the picture will continue to get sharper and sharper until you can see every last pore on the newsreader’s face.

There is also a move towards transparent screens, essentially panes of glass that strip things down to the most basic idea of a television set. At some stage we should see foldable and roll-able TV screens.

But if you’re hoping that 50 years down the line we might have something a bit more sci-fi than a variation on the box on a wall, then it may be found in the one thing 3D wants to be but can’t: the full immersion of virtual reality.

Right now there remains a clash between the millions upon millions being poured into research labs and the appetite of the public to actually use VR. Headsets have not taken off as a thing people have in their homes. But there are many hopes that this VR could end up becoming really, really good fun. If the technology can be made to work.

Virtual reality is already a familiar concept, but contained to a headset, cut off from everything around you.

There is already much chatter about the future possibilities of 360 degree filming, meaning you can take in the entirety of the view of a game, race or TV show. Or there might be a chance to watch it from multiple vantage points and “walk” through a scene.

If in 50 years you want to see a 126-year-old Mick Jagger take the Rolling Stones on their 36th farewell tour, there is a very good chance you will be able to pay for a seat at a virtual concert

The right technology might mean you can be at a concert without having to leave your sittingroom. If in 50 years you want to see a 126-year-old Mick Jagger take the Rolling Stones on their 36th farewell tour, there is a very good chance you will be able to pay for a seat at a virtual concert. Or watch it from the stage, beside the cryogenically preserved Charlie Watts. Or from wherever angle you want. All without leaving your room. Jagger mightn’t have to leave his home.

The greater hope is that virtual reality will eventually become an external experience, without an obtrusive headset or even the glasses that put so many off 3D.

Really, what someone needs to invent to really grab our attention is a Star Trek holodeck, playing out virtual reality all around us as if we have stepped into another place, time or world.

Well, good news. People are trying. They’re trying really hard.

There are some who believe we’ll get there long before we ever create a sentient android. Coupled with artificial intelligence, there is the promise of no longer being a viewer but of becoming a participant in a story.

Gaming got there a long time ago, and if there is not yet a global appetite for VR there is certainly one for taking part in a story, a mission, a project – and for doing it in a free-roaming online environment populated by friends and strangers from wherever they happen to have a decent wi-fi connection.

The more traditional medium of theatre has also played with that notion with increasing success over the past decade, allowing the audience to dress up for, say, The Great Gatsby at the Gate Theatre, and become immersed in the story.

By 2069 a giant electronics corporation will have invented a holodeck. The same people who bought curved 3D TVs will buy one. Everyone else will shrug their shoulders

Or the work of Anú Productions, in which the audience member became an active participant in a story played out around Dublin’s streets.

With the proper technology there are those who believe we’ll not only be able to inhabit a story, but participate in stories tailored for us. It also opens up the real possibility that someday you will be able to walk on to a holodeck version of the holodeck and warn a virtual Jean Luc Picard not to use the holodeck as it invariably ends in near disaster every single episode.

Or maybe, just maybe, the future will be as things have pretty much always been. By 2069 a giant electronics corporation will have invented a holodeck. We’ll be told the future is holodecks in every house. The same people who bought curved 3D TVs will buy a holodeck. Everyone else will shrug their shoulders, and by 2070 you’ll find bargain-binned holodecks in the Harvey Norman sale, by then in its 66th year without a break.

FIVE THINGS WE’LL SEE IN THE FUTURE

A torrent of streams Disney is among the studios taking back its content so it can set up against Netflix. Stand by for streaming choices to flourish.

Cash conundrum Once there was just a licence fee, then satellite packages, and now a range of subscription service options on top. More options. More cost.

Full immersion Without any goggles or glasses needed, we’ll turn the spare bedroom into a holodeck.

3D again The attempts to bring novelty to the cinema experience – there’s bound to be another attempt at 3D if the tech can be seen without glasses.

Foldable screens If you want to tuck your TV away you’ll be able to roll it up like a blind.

WHAT ABOUT IRISH TV?

RTÉ was 59 years old in June, and it’s tough to know quite how it’ll be set in another half a century – other than to presume the competition will not get any easier. We don’t have to look too far ahead to see what it would like, and what might happen.

RTÉ has a strategy document which says that by 2022 it wants to have more digital content as part of its attempt to hold on to younger viewers, while fighting off the Amazons and Apples of this world. It’s also advocating new ways to repackage and collect a licence fee in an age when so many will feel more connected with YouTube than their national broadcaster, and that job is to be outsourced by the government in the 2020s.

Whatever about Netflix, Amazon, etc – and Virgin Media Television here – competition will increasingly come not just from other TV stations, but from Irish people making their own digital content on their own terms. Thanks to multi-millionaire, superstar online gamers such as Athlone’s Sean McLoughlin (aka Jackscepticeye) becoming a YouTube star has become a proper career goal.

Ryan Tubridy prior to going live on the Late Late Show. The challenge for Irish TV will be to find its niche in a globalised market in which Irish viewers will have options of watching pretty much everything, everywhere. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The Late Late Show: the challenge for Irish TV will be to find its niche in a globalised market. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The same stands for commercial television. What was once TV3 has had several owners in its 20 years to the point where it’s split into a variety of Virgin Media channels, and, somewhat like newspapers, is open to whatever swings in fortune and favour its owners may experience down the line.

And like the newspaper business, the challenge for Irish TV – and, to a certain degree, radio – will be to find its niche in a globalised market in which Irish viewers will have options of watching pretty much everything, everywhere.

The safe bets are that sport will remain a big part of that. The Late Late Toy Show – far and away the biggest ratings winner of the past decade – will surely endure into another generation or two.

And whatever becomes big in the UK will always get a local twist on Irish TV. Stand by for Love Island: Rathlin.