I am a child of Television. No kidding…my first word? Not “mama” or “dada,” but “Popeye.” I was a disciple of Larry, Moe and Curly, and George Reeves taught me to believe a man could fly. I don’t think you could find a kid that was more plugged-in, tuned-in, and aware of television than I am. Which is why it somewhat pains me to report that TV, my lifelong companion, is dying, and near death. It was a good run. We had some great times. But I come not to praise TV, but to bury it – drive a stake through it’s 49 share heart. And to give you hope for the future.
In the 1950s, also known as the “Golden Age of Television,” TV was The Next Big Thing. And it was. Television killed what was left of live performances, vaudeville having met it’s Waterloo, courtesy of motion pictures. Television came close to killing movies, and pulled the rug out from under radio – at least as far as drama and comedy went. Why use your imagination for a radio drama, when you can see it on TV? But TV’s insatiable appetite for the New and Exciting, quickly chewing up and spitting out acts that would have survived years playing only live events, grew and grew. First it was rebroadcasting old movies. Then as TV matured, rebroadcasting old TV shows. Today you can watch entire channels devoted to rebroadcasting old sporting events. Now THAT’S entertainment, right?
But technology has a way of changing the game. They call it a paradigm shift. Sea change. And I wouldn’t give you a pair of dimes for the future of broadcast television.
It started, oddly enough, way back in the late 70s, when VCRs first hit the market. Suddenly, those willing to spend the time, effort, and endure the aggravation, could program a clunky video recorder to record any TV show and watch it at their convenience. This was the first tectonic shift of the plates that serve as the foundation of television. The television rating system (Nielsen), if not the entire fabric of our water cooler culture was based on the idea of communal television, summed up in the phrase, “Did you see what happened on ____________ (insert the name of your favorite show) last night?” With “time-shifting,” people no longer had to be slaves to the time clock of their televisions, with the added bonus of being able to fast-forward through the commercials. Whoops. There’s goes the economic model, holding viewers hostage to watch your ads.
Things got even more cloudy with the introduction of Tivo, and it’s clones built into satellite dish receivers. Now, consumers had the ability to record one show by watching another (the latest models allow you to record as many as five shows simultaneously. Even better (or worse, if you’re an advertiser) some models allow you to skip forward 30 seconds at a time, meaning you can potentially miss their ads altogether. What’s a poor media conglomerate to do?
Movie-wise, providers fought back with “movies on-demand,” a pricey (naturally) service that would allow you to (sort-of) watch a movie any time you liked, provided you jumped in at just the right time. This (of course) was coupled with a block on recording the movie with your DVR, so they could maximize revenues. Ho-hum.
Now, thanks to Netflix and their ilk, we have the ultimate in time-shifting: streaming. Streaming is pretty wonderful – for a fixed service price (for now), you can watch anything they offer (which is a lot) any time you like. It’s not free of frustration, mind you – to begin with, it requires a wicked-fast Internet connection and a willingness to put up with the intransigence of the content providers who tremble in their collective boots at the loss of control over your eyeballs. This translates into Big Media restricting what you can and can’t see on streaming services (even the ones they own) and some Byzantine and bizarre rules as to what’s available. For instance, in the Big Media-owned Hulu+ service, some shows are available to watch from episode one of season one. Others (notably anything from USA Networks, the CW and their sister channels) are only allowing you to watch the latest five episodes. (Can you say “shoot yourselves in the foot, whydontcha?” I knew you could.)
Even time-shifting with streaming services wasn’t perfect, until the advent of the iPad. Now you don’t need to drop a half-dozen Benjamins to update your TV to web-friendly. You can sit anywhere in your WiFi-enabled home and watch shows. Wanna watch in bed? Check? Turn your bathroom into a media room? Check? Watch while cooking? You got it. And you can pause, fast-forward, rewind, and switch shows whenever you like.
Of course, you’d expect Big Media to be in a blind panic over this. And you’d be right. They are torn between acknowledging the inevitable and trying to find the inflection point that represents “leading edge” (where all the money is) and “bleeding edge” (where you get shot in the back for being a pioneer), or getting stuck in the La Brea Tarpits of media, where yesterday’s heroes are today’s distant memories. Many of these media giants have come up with some “solutions” designed to solve THEIR problems, while paying little more than lip service to yours.
For years, Cable TV (and now Satellite TV) providers have told us “we can’t sell you individual channels – we don’t have the technology to do that.” This is complete and utter B.S. They have the technology. What they don’t have is the will – or the business model. You see, if they actually let consumers vote with their pocketbooks, and say gave you 50 channels of your choice for X dollars (with the understanding that premium channels like HBO would be more expensive), you’d see quite a few channels go under. So what? Nobody watches them anyway! And you’d see people getting channels they like, and choosing fewer of them. I’d wager most people would choose their local channels, a news channel or two, things like AMC, TNT, TBS, A&E, a few kids channels (if they have kids) and some kind of sports package, and that would be it, other than buying a movie package. But you see, streaming turns that entire model on it’s ear.
If you buy Nextflix ($8/month) you get tons of movies, a slew of TV shows, and now some original programming. “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara, is destined to become one of the best shows on Television. Only it’s not ON television. It’s on Netflix. Period. Exclusively. It’s going to be the next “Sopranos/Mad Men/Game of Thrones,” mark my words. And you can only see it if you buy a Netflix subscription.
Hulu+ has a few “exclusive” shows (sort of). What Hulu’s doing is buying up the U.S. rights to shows from England, Canada, and Australia, then passing them off as “exclusives.” Fair enough, I suppose. “Spy” is one of the funniest shows on TV – funny enough that you’ll see an American clone of it on TV this Fall. Sometimes that works (The Office) and sometimes it doesn’t (Coupling). We’ll see. They’ve also bought up the rights to the (sadly) short-lived Canadian detective show “Endgame.” There were rumors that Hulu would bring it back for more episodes they’d bankroll themselves (much like Netflix has done for “Arrested Development,” but, so far at least, that has not come to pass).
You can also buy individual shows – or even individual seasons – from vendors like Amazon and on Apple’s iTunes. That gets a bit pricey, but when prices come down, it will be a popular option, and probably allow shows that don’t target the ‘mainstream’ audience to find a home.
All this spells a slow and agonizing death for most of broadcast television. Obviously, there are some things that just can’t be relegated to on-demand viewing, at least not easily – live news and live sports, for instance. Sure you CAN stream them, but this seems like the wheelhouse for broadcast TV, because of the efficiencies and economies of scale. What it really comes down to will be changes in a number of business models. First, fiber optic directly into homes will become a necessity. Google’s already got one city they are wiring up that way. More will follow. It’s likely that people will start paying by the gigabyte for content delivery, instead of paying for unlimited bits at a given speed. Cable and Satellite will deliver news and sports, and provide the rest of their bandwidth as a ‘dumb pipe’ for broadband Internet connectivity. And entertainment networks will become brokers for content, or just go away entirely, replaced by production companies that own the intellectual property of the shows they produce.
Think this won’t happen? Nonsense. AM Radio has gone from being THE entertainment medium for music, news, sports, and drama, to largely being the purview of news/talk, traffic reports, and local/regional sports broadcasts. Television was once dominated by three networks that produced, owned, and broadcast virtually 100% of their own content. Today, all three networks compete with every other channel out there for shows produced by others – and often sell shows they produce themselves to other networks.
You see, while Big Media is frantically trying to hold onto their monopoly over content and how you receive it, there are too many forces at work, working to disintermediate them from control over what you watch, when you watch it, and how much (and who) you pay to watch it. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to make a buck on entertainment media. Some services (Hulu) include commercials. Some (Netflix) don’t. That’s liable to change, as we shift to a streaming world. But one thing (in my mind, at least) is certain – TV as we know it is on the way out. But video entertainment has a bright future.
TV is dead. Long live TV!