Mark Cuban doesn’t understand television. He holds a belief, common to connoisseurs the world over, that quality trumps everything else. The current object of his faith in Qualität Über Alles is HDTV. Says Cuban:

HDTV is the Internet video killer. Deal with it. Internet bandwidth to the home places a cap on the quality and simplicity of video delivery to the home, and to HDTVs in particular. Not only does internet capacity create an issue, but the complexity of moving HDTV streams around the home and to the HDTV is pretty much a deal killer itself.

“HDTV is the Internet video killer.” Th appeal of this argument — whoever provides the highest quality controls the market — is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it’s been used before. By audiophiles.

As January 1, 2000 approaches, and the MP3 whirlpool continues to swirl, one simple fact has made me feel as if I’m stuck at the starting line of the entire download controversy: The sound quality of MP3 has yet to improve above that of the average radio broadcast. Until that changes, I’m merely curious—as opposed to being in the I-want-to-know-it-all-now frenzy that is my usual m.o. when to comes to anything that promises music you can’t get anywhere else. Robert Baird, October, 1999

MP3s won’t catch on, because they are lower quality than CDs. And this was true, wasn’t it? People cared about audio quality so much that despite other advantages of MP3s (price, shareability, better integration with PCs), they’ve stayed true to the CD all these years. The commercial firms that make CDs, and therefore continue to control the music market, thank these customers daily for their loyalty.

Meanwhile,back in the real world of the recording business, the news isn’t so rosy…

Cuban doesn’t understand that television has been cut in half. The idea that there should be a formal link between the tele- part and the vision part has ended. Now, and from now on, the form of a video can be handled separately from it’s method of delivery. And since they can be handled separately, they will be, because users prefer it that way.

But Cuban goes further. He doesn’t just believe that, other things being equal, quality will win; he believes quality is so important to consumers that they will accept enormous inconvenience to get that higher-quality playback. When Cuban’s list of advantages of HDTV includes an inability to watch your own video on it (“the complexity of moving HDTV streams around the home and to the HDTV”), you have to wonder what he thinks a disadvantage would look like.

This is the season of the HDTV gotcha. After Christmas, people are starting to understand that they didn’t buy a nicer TV, they bought only one part of a Total Controlled Content Delivery Package. Got an HDTV monitor and a new computer for Christmas? You might as well have gotten a Fabergé Egg and a framing hammer for all the useful ways you can combine the two presents.

Media is a triathlon event. People like to watch, but they also like to create, and to share. Doubling down on the watching part while making it harder for the users to play their own stuff or share with their friends makes a medium worse in the users eyes. By contrast, the last 50 years have been terrible for user creativity and for sharing, so even moderate improvements in either of those abilities make the public go wild.

When it comes to media quality, people don’t optimize, they satisfice. Once the medium, whether audio or video or whatever, crosses a minimum threshold, users accept it and move on to caring about other attributes. The change in internet video quality from 1996 to 2006 was the big jump, and YouTube is the proof. After this, firms that offer higher social value for video will have an edge over firms that offer higher production values while reducing social value.

And because the audience for internet video will grow much faster than the audience for HDTV (and will be less pissed, because YouTube doesn’t rely on a ‘bait and switch’ walled garden play) the premium for making internet video better will grow with it. As Richard Gabriel said of programming languages years ago “[E]ven though Lisp compilers in 1987 were about as good as C compilers, there are many more compiler experts who want to make C compilers better than want to make Lisp compilers better.” That’s where video is today. HDTV provides a better viewing experience than internet video, but many more people care about making internet video better than making HDTV better.

YouTube is the HDTV killer. Deal with it.

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