Jam tomorrow for Xbox One’s TV dreams?

If last week’s live-streamed announcement of Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox One console had been a television drama, TV critics might have described it as a “disappointing and cryptic mystery, with a confusing narrative that raises more questions than answers”.

Gamers were aghast that Microsoft led its reveal story not with games but with Xbox One’s TV ambitions. This orientation would have been entirely understandable, saying everything about the entertainment business the Redmond outfit is next targeting for disruption. Except, the TV announcements were as scant and underwhelming as the rest of the show.

Desperate to be gatekeeper

Microsoft has harboured a TV dream at least since it formed the MSNBC news network in 1996 with NBC. It jumped out of that joint venture last year but, like many of its peers in home electronics, has retained a desire to play a gatekeeper role in home entertainment.

“What if a single device could provide all of your entertainment?,” Xbox SVP Yusuf Mehdi said at last week’s announcement. It sounded like Groundhog Day. With Xbox One, that dream is incrementally closer – but Microsoft’s shot at exploding the TV business may still be muted.

Broadcasters retain primacy

To stand any chance, it is critical that Microsoft obtains TV content. Xbox 360’s on-demand internet video apps have so far proved popular, and will be added to by its heir apparent. But, in live TV, traditional access providers still rule the roost. So, to pull off the trick of offering live TV, at least in the US, Xbox One will work by letting users pipe their existing cable subscription service directly in to the console.

This means viewers get a rudimentary EPG with personalisation built in – and it demands they must use two boxes simultaneously, doubling their power consumption. Crucially for the industry, this means the pay-TV providers retain their power and primacy in the broadcasting chain. If anyone expected Xbox One to unleash a “cord-cutting” revolution, allowing consumers to replace their set-top boxes with a console, there is precious little evidence as yet. Instead of usurping broadcasters, Xbox One may be their Trojan Horse to the interactive living room.

Interaction before content

If Xbox One does not bring a fresh approach to internet TV content, what does it offer the industry? That Mehdi opened his entire announcement with news of an upgraded Kinect sensor suggests interaction is what Microsoft believes its USP to be.

More opportunities to navigate channels using voice and by spreading, swiping and stretching arms build on existing principles already laid by Kinect. But, whilst others like Samsung are also pushing such new interaction mechanisms, it is as yet unproven whether viewers reared on remote controls are at all keen to watch TV in the same way they play Kinect Sports.

Mobile has muted interactive TV dreams

With its added processing power, Xbox One supports Instant Switching between TV, games and apps, and Snap Mode, letting viewers pin multiple of these functions side-by-side on TV – watch Star Trek whilst browsing IMDB using Internet Explorer.

“Have you ever wanted to do multiple things whilst watching TV?,” Mehdi asked. Consumers are already conditioned to multi-task in this way – amongst the glut of “second-screen” research over the last two years, the latest, from NPD, shows 88 percent of TV viewers are doing so. But we have become used to multi-tasking using distinct devices, dividing our attention naturally between TV and lap. Snap Mode may have merit in the desktop computer world of Windows 8 from which it is borrowed, but the notion of a single TV screen to house all tasks at once has already been displaced, before it has truly yet been realised.

Augmenting existing TV

For broadcasters, Xbox One’s most tantalising opportunities may now lay where it embraces and enhances the legacy TV experience. At its event, Microsoft showed how interactive overlays running beside live ESPN NBA and NFL sports coverage will offer fantasy league scores, player data and more.

If these overlays can be considered “apps”, buildable by any producer or broadcaster to accompany their own live show, Microsoft could help realise decades-old interactive TV dreams – imagine Sky News’ election-night app, or ITV’s X Factor vote-along app. But broadcasters are already wrestling with producing such overlays for a proliferating number of platforms, notably Freeview’s Red Button; Microsoft exhibits a strong degree of platform control toward broadcasters; and many broadcasters may prefer deploying interactivity on mobile platforms that are less fragmented and easier to develop for.

Rewriting the script

Writers of narrative-driven dramatic games like Heavy Rain have long advocated a fusion of TV script-writing and game mechanics in to interactive drama. At Microsoft’s event, its entertainment president Nancy Tellem – the former CBS TV president who is building a Microsoft production studio in Los Angeles – promised: “At this very moment our talented teams in Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver and London are using the magic and science of Xbox to rethink dramas, comedies, competition shows, sports, live events and digital shorts.”

That starts with a live-action TV dramatisation of the popular Halo video game, co-produced by Microsoft’s London-based Soho Productions with Steven Spielberg. The production will be a flag-bearer on two counts. If it meshes interactivity with TV’s dramatic narrative prowess, it could provide a template for future entertainment commissions. More importantly, the Halo series could be Microsoft’s House Of Cards – a self-financed banner production used to drive subscriptions to its own service. By choosing the classic Halo game for adaptation, however, it is questionable whether Microsoft will convert any TV viewers beyond its core audience of sci-fi gamers.

Building Skype in to Xbox One and its Kinect will give TV show producers more leeway to include viewers in their programming via live two-ways, though only in the same way that new TVs, from manufacturers like Samsung, are doing with built-in cameras.

Where in the world?

Amongst the biggest questions left on the table is the global extent of all this TV compatibility. Microsoft may have vaguely promised connections from US cable services but, with months until launch, UK support, for example, is unclear. YouView has said: “We don’t currently have any plans to support Xbox One.” Virgin Media told me: “We’ve got a great relationship with Microsoft and we’re always looking at new ways to enhance our products and services such as Virgin TV Anywhere.” BSkyB is understood to be open discussions but to consider the prospects very early days.

For its part, a Microsoft spokesperson says: “We’re in continued discussions with a broad set of content providers and owners but we don’t have anything to announce at this time. Our goal is to enable live TV through Xbox One in every way that it is delivered throughout the world, whether that’s television service providers, over the air or over the internet, or HDMI-in via a set top box, as is the case with many providers in the US. The delivery of TV is complex and we are working through the many technologies and policies around the world to make live TV available where Xbox One is available.”

Slow revolution

We have become accustomed to each new console generation coming a big bang. But this uncertainty more modestly suggests a slow acceleration to a full-fledged TV experience that remains some day in the future, on the platform of a more capable and future-proof box. The revelation of Xbox One was a flag in the sand from an industry now more comfortable with iterative digital development than glitzy one-offs. If one is being charitable, one has to assume there is more to come than this. But don’t expect any further TV details at the upcoming E3 expo, at which Microsoft’s next revelations are expected to centre around games.

So many companies are now unleashing so many varied and proprietary newfangled TV features and interaction mechanisms, it is questionable whether any of them will ever truly be the primary gatekeeper, as Microsoft is intent – at least for anything other than a fragmented subsets of ecosystem loyalists.

Microsoft may have narrowed its TV ambitions down from owning the entire end-to-end ecosystem, but its determination, with Xbox One, to facilitate users’ primary HDMI channel experience shows it adapting as it continues burning a candle to be the gatekeeper of the living room.