“The idea that the web will cause the TV business to ‘collapse’ is fantasy,” wrote Dan Frommer yesterday in a calm response to Henry Blodget’s actually-quite-alarmist Don’t Mean To Be Alarmist, But The TV Business May Be Starting To Collapse.

While Frommer is right that the business of TV is actually still doing well as it is, and technology-led change will probably be a lot slower than Blodget suggests, he underplays one important factor – a ‘big splash’ play from a new player that suddenly makes cord-cutting simple and attractive to consumers.

While Frommer notes towards the end of his piece that “I’m not stupid enough to think that this business model will thrive or last forever. And as a TV user, it would be pretty great to see a company like Apple do something bold to mess with the TV industry’s power structure.” To my mind, this is an inevitability - not a footnote. The existing, long-term cable deals he cites as a stabilizing force for the status quo in TV won’t necessarily last the course up to their renegotiation date.

Whether it’s Apple, Microsoft or someone completely unexpected, technology will fundamentally disrupt the established business of TV within the next five years – because that’s what technology does. Just as the iPhone took the mobile industry by the throat, someone will do the same to TV, and the time has nearly come for that to happen.

But what about the content deals, huh?

TV is nothing without content, right? So goes the argument of many a staunch realist discussing the future of TV – but who says this revolutionary tech firm needs to license all of the most popular content to cause a real stir? All it needs is:

  • A fresh take on TV consumption that clicks with consumers and that is easy for them to understand and use.
  • Enough content to get users hooked while allowing them to access everything else they want via another method.

If this fresh take on TV is exciting enough, consumers will demand more content for it and the established TV industry will fall over itself to accommodate that as fast as its lawyers can manage – or at the very least, offer a viable competitor.

What might this ‘fresh take’ be? It’s too soon to say for sure, Apple’s own TV set (if/when it arrives) will probably be the catalyst needed to spur on innovation across the industry at a faster pace than those established content deals might suggest and the current big industry players might like.

Sure, an Apple TV set could be prohibitively expensive for many at first, but it will no doubt kickstart a widespread consumer awareness of alternatives to the existing way they receive their TV. Apple will most likely try to set itself apart from the pack with not just a ‘smart’ TV but with something else – maybe a super-hi-res display (and content exclusively available in that format), an iOS-style apps platform for third-party developers that allows for more than just content packaging and Twitter apps, or by harnessing the power of its AirPlay technology to let users interact with their TVs via other iDevices in interesting new ways. The Apple TV set-top box would remain on offer as a cheap way for those who can’t afford the TV set (yet) to get in on most of the action.

One spark

Of course, it won’t necessarily be Apple. It could be someone else that acts as the catalyst, with a breakthrough product that takes the work that the likes of Boxee have put in over the past few years and makes it ‘click’ with the mass market. Whichever company delivers it, the catalyst will unleash a wave of competition we haven’t seen since the three years after the iPhone launched and turned our idea of a smartphone on its head. The resulting shakeout of the industry will change everything.

Do I have any inside information that makes me think this is inevitable? No, but the technology’s there – just look at Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console, which is increasingly a viable cord-cutting device with ample content and integrated technology such as Kinect control and the SmartGlass second screen service to offer a glimpse at where we’re headed.

While it’s a bit of a hotch-potch approach built on top of seven-year-old hardware at the moment, Microsoft’s move to make Xbox an entertainment software layer in a wider range of devices may position it well to be a frontrunner in this new landscape. Based on past form in the entertainment sphere though, Microsoft is unlikely to be that spark that ignites a revolution.

So no, the TV industry isn’t going to collapse, but a technology company is going to transform TV as we know it within the next five years – probably sooner – whether the industry is ready for it or not. Technology always finds a way.

See also: The time is right for Amazon to ‘do a Kindle’ on the TV industry with its own set-top box