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.