A few (expanded) thoughts on the future of television

Some of these ideas were originally a part of my review of The Best Sketch Comedy Show, which sort of explain why this post isn’t a review, despite the blog title. But all this future of television stuff didn’t really have anything to do with that review, and it made the article awfully long. So I expanded the thoughts and moved them here.

Watching online shows like My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation and The Best Sketch Comedy Show makes me wonder if the networks and media giants are watching, too. They’d better be.

I talked to a few of my neighbors at a Halloween party, and learned that more than a few of them are ditching cable and satellite services altogether, and replacing them with Internet television delivery solutions. Thanks to sites like Hulu or TV Guide, most network shows can be streamed to your computer, tablet, or TV, especially if you are willing to spring for a device like Apple TV, Google TV, or Boxee. Some televisions, in fact, already ship with Internet-ready connections built in.You can find most (if not all) of your favorite networks shows, and you can purchase or rent others from Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes. Best of all, you can watch on your own schedules, with or without commercials.

Old media distribution outlets are reacting in a predictable manner … they’re fighting it tooth and nail for the most part. Comcast, for example, is attempting to charge services like Netflix a toll, much to the chagrin of net neutrality advocates. They may well win, at least in the short term. But long term? No way. The best they can hope for is to postpone the inevitable, and lose more of our good will in the meantime.

As the technology improves and alternatives become more ubiquitous, the old media models will have to change. Viewers will no longer have to settle for content that the networks chose to push their way; they’ll pull their favorites, from a multitude of sources, and consume on their own schedules. I’m not entirely convinced that the legacy networks, at least in the forms we know today, will survive the next couple of decades. Increasingly, even specialty cable outlets, like SyFy and Comedy Central, will seem like unnecessary middlemen when users can pick and chose the content they like best … and even whether they’d like to pay for it, or sit through advertising. Content creators—from the independents to the conglomerate backed—can come straight to us.

The question isn’t if the models will change, but when. Will the media conglomerates evolve now, or wait until they’re obsolete? Networks can struggle to hold on to their dwindling market share, an ultimately unwinnable fight, or they can look at bellwethers like Flipboard or Pandora to find new models for the personal “pull” networks we’ll create for ourselves, based on our own specific tastes and moods.

Right now, the networks have to cast as wide a net as possible … to every degree possible, they have to be all things to all people. Even specialty channels like Syfy or Lifetime have to reach beyond their core base to keep dwindling numbers as high as possible. That’ll change soon. Soon, the networks will be able to “narrowcast,” targeting their programs to a very specific audience. Maybe even an audience of one: you.

If you’re not familiar with Flipboard, it’s an ipad application that allows to to create your own iPad newspaper or magazine, pulling in articles of specific interest to you from a variety of sources. Imagine being able to do the same with television.

If you don’t know Pandora (I’m sure there must be someone somewhere who doesn’t), you are in for a treat. Basically, you enter some of your favorite songs or artists, and Pandora uses a complex algorithm to determine other songs and artists you might enjoy, and then creates a custom radio station just for you. You may enter as few or as many songs and artists as you like, but the more you enter, the more uncanny it gets … I can’t remember the last time Pandora played a song I didn’t appreciate. If you don’t like a song or artist it suggests, click the thumbs down, and Pandora won’t play it again … and it adds that data to its algorithm. You can even create multiple Pandora stations for different moods and occasions.

Now, imagine being able to do that with television. You’ll be able to enter your favorite shows … dramas, comedies, anything. Then, like Pandora, the network of tomorrow will pull content from a wide spectrum of sources, ranging from the major studios to the garage independents, to create a personalized network that matches your own unique tastes. You’ll be able to flip on your own network not to see what’s on … but to chose from a menu of shows that match your tastes precisely. You’ll be able to narrow or widen your search as much as you like.

Will it be expensive? Possibly. But honestly, I don’t think that’s terribly likely, especially when you compare it to your present cable/dish bill. Remember, choice opens markets. Right now, we’re facing an environment where fewer and fewer conglomerates control both production and distribution of content. A wider market opens the playing field, and offers us more choices. Just think of the indie music scene. Think of how many truly amazing indie films you miss, even if you frequent the festivals, because there’s just not enough distribution, or because some studio exec feels (probably correctly) that there’s not a vast enough audience for wide distribution.

But back to the original point, choice also brings competition. We’ll certainly pay for some of this content. Some will be paid for by advertising. Imagine how attractive a precisely-targeted series of networks would be to advertisers. Even the commercials will be better, because we’ll be seeing marketing that’s more likely to be of interest. Marketing itself can become a service rather than an intrusion, something done for, not to, the customer.

Granted, the models for monetizing will have to change. Television is still expensive to produce, even if the inherit waste in the process can be eliminated. That will come. Advertising will continue to support some, and we’ll pay for others—subscribing to a series, or just buying or renting an episode or two. We’ll see more branded entertainment (a lonely hero drives across the nation in his new Ford Mustang, fighting crime while wearing Levi jeans, navigating with Google Maps on his iPhone). “Freemium” models will emerge and evolve. Some of them will work.

But in the end, as my agent and business partner Philippa Burgess is fond of pointing out, there are only two monetization models in all of entertainment—one where the consumer pays for the content (buying a movie ticket, a CD, or a book) and one where advertisers subsidize (network television, Pandora, broadcast radio)—or maybe a hybrid of the two. There’s no other option. That, at least, won’t change.

In any case, the end result is the same. We’ll have choices, and we’ll shape our own personal networks. We’ll access them through the channels that give us the most bandwidth, flexibility, and service at the best price. The only things that seem likely to evolve are the layers of filters and middlemen between you and the content … layers that, increasingly, don’t add significant value. At present (forgive the oversimplification), a studio produces a show. A network buys it and shows it to you for free. Their customers, advertisers, pay to hitch a ride (remember, you’re not a network’s customers; you’re the product). Right now, the network adds value to the chain because that’s the channel (pun intended) that allows the programs to reach the consumer. In the next decade or so, that value is going to shrink if not disappear altogether.

One complaint about customized television is that we’ll lose the “shared experience” of television … we won’t hear as much about how all of America was watching as one, say, the Apollo moon landing, the final M*A*S*H episode, or even the ending of Lost. To a degree, that’s already happening, at least outside of sports, and has been since the VCR and DVR came on the scene. But the shared experience and water cooler talks won’t go away altogether—it never will. We’ll still want to watch the shows that excite us most as soon as they’re available. After all, we wouldn’t want to wait another minute to find out who shot J.R. We’ll still watch together, or we’ll discuss later. But if we miss something terrific, no problem. We can pull it the next day, or the day after that.

In the meantime, we have a wealth of content from a broad spectrum of providers from which to choose. The teams behind The Best Sketch Comedy Show and My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation are some of the pioneers that are shaping the future of television. I hope their efforts pay off brilliantly for them.

I’ll have a few more Web TV series reviews for you soon—as well as the usual book, beer, and general stuff reviews. If you don’t mind, please help spread the word? Also, I’d love to know what you think. Please be sure to let me know.

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6 responses to “A few (expanded) thoughts on the future of television

  1. I can’t disagree with your main points (which are well expressed), but I do believe you’ve stepped one foot into the old “internet utopia” mindset.

    Not that you’re strictly advocating that TV shows will be free or universally available, but I don’t think we’ll ever reach an era of ultimate choice and available through multiple channels/platforms. Even with everything we have now (DVD, streaming, PPV, on-demand, etc.) a lot of content is not available. And a lot of the channels you mentioned exist only because they are allowed to…as the networks try to figure out how to monetize the web.

    You mentioned Pandora. There is a lot of music, some of which is from the past 25 years, that you can’t beg, borrow or steal anywhere on the web. Already, a lot of DVDs are out of print. And Pandora produces no new content of its own. I love the idea of Sirius/XM, but it’s *really* expensive for what you get.

    I don’t think we’ll be able to successfully subscribe to a series (via internet streaming) when the networks today won’t even tell us how many episodes will actually be produced. Who wants to subscribe to a series that ends after 7 episodes with no ending/resolution?

    I guess what I am saying is I agree that we are in a continual state of flux in the entertainment industry, with changes that are coming faster than ever. (Not an original thought.) B but I’m not sure any of us can see the big picture where this is going.

    I do disagree with your enthusiasm for the web sketch shorts. I have rarely seen anything I would actually watch on a recurring basis, much less pay for. Too much college-age humor, a couple quick jokes and it done. As long as there’s “real TV”, anyone with an iota of talent will end up working for the big boys.

  2. I adore XM too, but gave it up when I stopped having long commutes … and now depend largely on services like oo tunes and the other radio apps for the iPhone (or platform of your choice). The sound is basically equal to what I was getting with XM through my car stereo, and the choices are even wider. These apps gather existing content (from broadcast station streams, online stations, etc..) without creating anything new, sure, but they package it well.

    No, everything is not available online, in music, television, or anything else. That’s true of cable, too, though. Although Sherlock, for one example, was available online long before it reached the American airwaves.

    I mentioned that 12 families in our neighborhood cut the cable or ditched the dish. While 12 houses may seem like a lot for one neighborhood, this is a fairly affluent and bohemian (I am aware of the irony, thanks) neighborhood, so it’s a little ahead of the curve. And that’s 12 out of 100. Although I think Carol and I are likely to become 13. It’s a fairly high percentage. 2009 was the first year that cable and dish actually began to lose market, and 2010 was the second. While that was driven largely by the economy, once people find other solutions, it’s hard to picture them coming back.

    As for Carol and me, we just don’t watch enough to make it worth what we’re paying. We can get local stations with simple rabbit ears (or the 21st century equivalent), and at 1080p rather than 720. As for the rest? We can get our sports (in the case of sports, “our” means “my”), news, movies, etc. for an entire year for about the cost of two months of cable.

    When you and I have disagreed on stuff like this in the past, our difference has been more a question of timing rather than outcome. Remember my claim that Blockbuster wouldn’t survive on demand — which was just a rumor back then, and that digital effects would replace the models? You disagreed with both … especially the latter. And for around 10 to 20 years, you were right. I think the same is the case here.

    I’m not advocating free (quite the contrary) … or that the television equivalents of garage bands are likely to replace the slick studio shows, any more than indie music or film replaces Lady Gaga or Transformers 3. Only that the indies will soon have a way into your home, if you choose to invest the five minutes. Right now, the gatekeepers keep them out. Yeah, there’s a higher chaff to wheat ratio. But the cream will rise.

    And anyone who takes a dime of the money will have to add significant and measurable value. Gatekeeping isn’t value enough.

    As for subscribing to a show that may be canceled, I think that model will change. Er, I mean the model of canceling a show early rather than giving it room to grow. The simple economics mandate it. Television is expensive. And producing ten pilots, hoping for three pickups, and one hit is increasingly unsustainable.

    How will the model change? As you point out, it’s unclear until the experiments start, but I can’t help thinking it’s a better deal for both the production companies and the creative talent. Right now, let’s say Warner makes a show for NBC. If NBC cancels after 6 episodes, Warner has no way to recoup that investment. Warner has to pray that the show lasts at least 100 episodes so that it can hope to turn a profit. Friends was unique in that it was the very first sit com ever in history to turn a profit during first run.

    Som maybe a show will begin on a network. Some won’t. Even some produced by the Disneys and Paramounts. Some that do will be canceled … but that won’t inevitably mean the end any more. Because soon (five years? Ten?), Warner will have an incentive to produce an entire season, and perhaps even more, because it can target a smaller audience, and doesn’t (necessarily) have to give a cut to a network … or maybe a smaller one to an amalgamator. Or at very least, it can finish a season or two after a network cancels, because there will exist a way to reach that audience. We’ll likely also see more England-style short seasons that may continue, expand … or not.

    Sure, the technology hasn’t quite reached its potential yet. Apple TV, Airplay, Boxee, and Google TV all need to mature a little, and perhaps even start cooperating more. (You shouldn’t have to perform a hack to get Boxee on an Apple or Google TV, for example). That’s coming, I hope.

    But in the end, I am happy to see more doors opening for content creators, and I’m happy to have more choices for myself. More later; this is fun.

  3. John, from the outside looking in, what I do understand about how TV networks purchase series (via the labyrinthine pilot process) certainly looks wasteful and expensive. And yet so many of the shows that do make it on the air have too many rough spots and ill-conceived aspects that make them nearly unwatchable. (“Running Wilde”, anyone?) So I would much prefer the commitment to shorter runs a’la the BBC. Plus, I just prefer shows that tell their story (or at least a chapter’s worth) and then sign off for a few months…or permanently.

    I have to admit I don’t recall our discussions about Blockbuster (whose streaming service I have never used…I already have Netflix) or using models via CGI. Without knowing the context of the discussion, I can guess they are like my feelings about your original post above: It’s not that I don’t believe these various changes won’t ever occur, but they have to get a lot better to become popular…and do so quickly before they die on the vine. For example, CGI: it would never have become so commonly used if it hadn’t gotten so good. And it has gotten so good that I prefer it (when well done) over models. But we never know how long those technological advances will take, or whether some other approach will overtake them.

    For example, I won’t claim 3D TV will never become the norm, but I don’t see mass appeal for 3D TV that requires that paraphernalia we’ll put up with in a theater. Sitting for 3 hours in a theater with no interruptions is an event. Sitting through HIMYM with clunky glasses on while also reading a magazine or ironing the laundry is just too inconvenient. So while we might all end up buying something labelled “3D”, it won’t be 3D as we know it today.

    I don’t see the average person ditching the convenience of the menu offered by a cable/satellite TV service…until the whole “hunt and gather” part of the experience is improved. Right now, the networks and the on-screen program grid actually inform us as to what is available to watch. Bringing order to all that choice will be part of what tips the advantage to the unboxed TV experience. It requires a lot more engagement on the part of the viewer in a medium that is routinely labeled as being passive entertainment. I’m sure we both agree TV is only as passive as you choose to let it be, but it shouldn’t be work, either.

    It’s funny we are having this discussion, since I have been drafting a complaint about how the demise of the record store and the faltering of the big record companies have forced music fans to “hunt and gather” new music. You have to aggressively listen to podcasts, read blogs, visit artists download sites, and mail order from Amazon to replicate the level of music information and access you used to be able to get from a few radio stations and a visit to the record store. You have to really WANT to do it, or you end up listening to the old stuff you already know and love. –SSS

  4. Your remark about the shared experience put me in mind of teaching in an isolated community in Northern Canada 20 years ago. The first two years I was there, there was only one television station, CBC North. You could come to school in the morning pretty confident that alot of your students had watched the same TV the night before. This was a particular boon to the high school social studies and language arts teachers. The last year we were there, cable came into the community, and that shared experience was lost. My husband and I chose not to get cable, and the students’ comment was often, “Eee, miss, you don’t got cable? You poor?”

  5. I hear ya about the 3D television. Especially since there are so may “glasses-less” solutions on the horizon. I’ve seen two that were amazing … and equally terrific when showing standard 1080p 2D. I’ve also seen one or two that were so so at best, but I think the playing field will level. 10 years from now, I imagine it’ll be a common enough “extra” that most TVs will ship with the option. Now that new, smaller, and cheaper cameras are advancing past prototype, the content will catch up. That said, it’ll still be a fun gimmick; I honestly doubt it’ll revolutionize anything, at least in the long term.

    Arv, fun story! Carol and I are thinking to turn off cable for a month or so to see how it goes. I’ll let you know!

  6. And on the same topic, more or less, how about this for a bellwether on the prognosis of the future for old vs new media: “S&P 500 Drops New York Times, Adds Netflix” http://on.mash.to/NetflixNYT

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