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Minyanville at CES: What Smart TVs and Media Centers Still Can't Get Right

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Despite the leaps and bounds made by connected TVs and media centers, they still lack one important thing: passivity.

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Of all the innovations at this year's CES, Smart TVs and media centers may have the strongest presence. With new offerings from Google (GOOG), Sony (SNE), Microsoft (MSFT), Motorola (MMI), Samsung, and LG -- as well as the looming possibility of Apple's (AAPL) iTV -- regular broadcast and cable television have never looked so antiquated.

But despite the leaps and bounds made by connected TVs and media centers, there's still one persistent problem that prevents them from supplanting regular broadcast television: the lack of passivity. While it's fantastic that almost anything we want to watch is available instantaneously with a few clicks, the fact that we still can't sit back and watch what's already on is still a major factor in the decision to cut the cord.

I sat in on a conference on the future of Smart TVs and home entertainment featuring panelists from Motorola, Yahoo (YHOO), Western Digital (WDC), Intel (INTC), Cisco (CSCO), and ActiveVideo. Experts in their respective fields, they were still playing things by ear and waiting for a trend to emerge that links active and passive TV watching.

Edgar Villalpando of ActiveVideo referenced the clear difference between streaming and broadcast content: Streaming video is what you want to watch at that moment, and broadcast is for sitting back and relaxing. And even now, in 2012, never the twain shall meet.

Motorola's vice president and home CTO David Grubb related a personal anecdote of how broadcast television still plays an important role in home entertainment. Grubb flipped to Forrest Gump midway through its run on cable. A fan of the film, he ended up watching the remainder on TV even though the DVD was sitting 12 feet away from him on the shelf. Like many of us, Grubb chose to experience content that a network chose for him -- despite the fact that a better experience was practically within arm's reach.

All six panelists were at a loss for a definitive answer to connecting a Smart TV experience with passive home entertainment. But perhaps they should take a look at the music industry for the answer.

The evolution of how we listen to music -- from radio, to records, to cassette, to CD, to satellite radio, to iTunes, to Pandora (P) -- bears a striking similarity to how we watch TV and moves. We've gone from the theater, to cable, to VCR rentals, to On Demand, to, well, iTunes again. But in terms of video content, we still lack a Pandora -- an easy, popular, and widely supported manner of passive, pre-selected video entertainment.

For Smart TVs and media centers, we must play an active role in our content. We are forced to click through a list of thousands of movies and shows, somehow make a decision on a single item, sit through the program, then make that Sophie's Choice again and again and again.

Why can't there be a shuffle feature? Why isn't there a standard function -- like on every smartphone, personal media player, or heck, CD player from 20 years ago -- to play content randomly, mimicking the programming schedule of a TV network? Sure, hardly anyone would want to roll the dice on a feature that would spit back The Golden Girls or Eraserhead with equal probability, but like the personal stations on Pandora, moods can be refined.

And yes, most Smart TVs, media centers, and online content distributors like Netflix (NFLX) or YouTube will split programs up by genre. But beyond that, the decision is still left up to the user. Compare that to iTunes which will allow users to shuffle through artists and songs by genre and automatically produce hours upon hours of random, preselected content based on one parameter.

And when we start looking at Smart Playlists on iTunes -- groupings of songs that adhere to multiple parameters pre-programmed by users -- video can't even come close.

Smart TVs and media centers need to take the Smart Playlist route and start offering up virtual channels. Maybe pulling information from IMDb's keyword lists, they could organize programming as specific as "botched bank heist" or "posthumous narrator." Like iTunes or Pandora, a user could select that keyword and enjoy -- and discover -- films, TV series, or even specific one-off episodes that fall into that highly specified category.

But why stop with keywords? Put original airdates and network affiliation into the mix, and we could easily watch, say, NBC's Thursday night lineup from 1987 with a single click, rather than physically choosing each episode of Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues. If we can sort through MP3s with similar parameters, why not MP4s?

In the end, ironically, the only way for Smart TVs and media centers to fully replace regular broadcast TV is to perform the very function that drove most of us away: telling us what we want to watch.

(See also: Minyanville at CES: Apple's Super-Secret Presence at CES and Minyanville at CES: Google Puts Positive Spin on Android's Fragmentation)
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