To explain my perspective on the fate or future of television, I need to begin with a story. Several years ago now, I was on a blind date. He was a doctor, by my recollection; handsome, well-educated, funny, a catch by most standards. Things were going well. There was sushi, wine, all the get-to-know-you stories, and then at some point I asked if he had seen something on TV recently. He leaned away from me and said, with more than a hint of disdain, “I don’t watch TV.” “What?!” I exclaimed. A hush went over the room. “You don’t watch TV? I LOVE TV!” Needless to say, date over.
I know that in many circles even owning a television is a sign of a weak intellect and a weaker soul, but my exuberant love of TV endures. I love my TV memories like the Creature Double Features on Channel 56 and my family gathered watching the last episode of MASH. I love being able to relate to people with whom I share nothing in common but our shared delight in Tabitha’s Salon Makeover. I love television events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars. I love discovering shows like The Wire that completely transport me into a new world like really good fiction should whether written, performed, or projected. And I am one who prescribes to Steve Johnson’s argument that “the boob tube” can actually make you smarter (www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html).
But television has been changing rapidly, and it’s been several years now that we’ve been hearing about the end of television “as we know it” coming soon to a living room near you. What will become of TV? Or more to the point, what will it become?
Turn and face the strange (Ch-Ch-Changes)
The dawn of the DVR (digital video recorder) may have sparked cries of a falling televisual sky around 1999/2000, but in fact it is not one change that has inspired the current crisis in television, but the convergence of a number of overlapping technological changes enhancing the way our entertainment is delivered to us that have started network head spinning. Here are a few of the trends:
Increased delivery systems – Your television is no longer your sole link to this business called show. Thanks to the dawn of the broadband world, your computer and phone are also considered suitable devices for watching a short, a film, the news or any program.
Niche-casting – With cable networks dedicated to everything from classic horror films to fly-fishing, there is literally something for everyone. The internet explodes this concept even further with everything from YouTube series on do-it-yourself fingernail design to the now classic piano-playing cats. More culturally significant is the fact that this could also mean that those minority or marginalized groups that have long languished as clichés on traditional television, or who have been invisible altogether, may finally find more authentic representations of themselves online.
Time-shifting - For those old enough to remember the VCR, the concept of time-shifting is not new. However the accessibility of delayed viewing through DVRs and the internet make it much easier to use (I still can’t program a VCR…) and will definitely eliminate the concept of “prime time” altogether. “Must See TV” has been replaced by “Maybe Later TV.”
Interactive programming – More and more people (read: mostly those under 30) are foregoing the traditional entertainments for gaming (online or otherwise), where your participation is the experience. These kids are no couch potatoes.
You Tube – Why dine on whatever the networks have cooked up this year, when you can host your own dinner party? As of May 2009; 28,800 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every day (http://mashable.com/2009/05/20/youtube-video-uploads/). Nielsen’s numbers from July 2009 showed 11.2 billion total streams of that same content. (http://mashable.com/2009/08/13/nielsen-july-video/). As Ben Parr from Mashable notes, “That’s nearly double the population of the entire world. Let that sink in for a moment: two videos for every person on the planet, and all of these views were generated just inside the US.” User-generated content is our new favorite station.
So, what does all this mean? A straw poll of my Facebook friends (who represent multiple genders, social classes, sexual orientations, races, religions, and generations) told me all I need to know. No one is watching TV when it is “on.” A lot of people are skirting the high costs of premium cable channels to watch programs on Netflix (some even splurged for the Netflix set-top box – the Roku). For those without cable or a DVR, Hulu is definitely a savior. There’s that whole downloading illegally thing that we will all agree to know about but not speak of. And just about everyone is watching something particular to their interests that no one else has ever seen or heard of.
Now, there is a narrow scope of television that is getting watched live: reality shows (which are much cheaper to produce than narrative, episodic television), news, and sports. In some ways, this kind of programming requires a live audience and rewards them. For example, American Idol asks to you vote during its programming and by some counts, more people vote for their favorite idol than for president (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2006/may/26/realitytv.usnews). As for the news, in this media market if you are 5 minutes late to the story, it’s already over.
From what you’re saying, it seems like people are still watching stuff. Why is this a crisis?
Well, it’s not a crisis right now for you or me, frankly. We have more options than we ever have and more and more of those options are low-cost or free. However the business model that makes TV work is in crisis and that is what is at stake for networks, media conglomerates, and many of the artists who create the content.
Nearly everyone who owns a set knows that advertisements are what pay for the programming we hold dear and, despite corporate fears, skipping the ads is not a new phenomenon. A commercial has always been the perfect cue for a bathroom or the kitchen visit. But now the technologies that make television programming so much easier and more convenient to watch (online video, DVRs, etc.) are matched by an increased ability to track viewing behaviors. Nielsen, the networks, the media overlords; they are watching you and they know what you watch and when (and if you skip the ads). This new information has the potential to change ad revenues and the fear is that the change will not be for the better.
As the networks watch their audiences flee the confines of their couches for the freedom of their computers, one of their challenges is to devise ways to make money from online programming. Will charging per show work? Just charging for premium content? Hulu recently announced it will start charging in the coming year. When this news was posted at EW.com, the reader comments were almost entirely negative. One reader, “Bill,” noted “thus marks the end of Hulu.” Another said: “who will pay for Hulu? It might be illegal, but you can find any show online – for free. This is such a stupid business move.” (http://news-briefs.ew.com/2009/10/22/hulu-to-start-charging-in-2010/) According to Tech Crunch, as of March 2009, Hulu had approximately 40 million individual users and 397 million streams. (http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/03/23/hulu-gains-10-million-viewers-in-february-now-no-4-video-site-in-us/). This documented loyal following could create a new money-making model if their attempts at charging for service actually work. However, it is more likely they will lose a lot of their audience once a PayPal account is required to watch what they have to offer.
Yet another challenge faces the networks as their average viewer’s age ascends: “According to a study released by Magna Global's Steve Sternberg, the five broadcast nets' average live median age (in other words, not including delayed DVR viewing) was 50 last season. That's the oldest ever since Sternberg started analyzing median age more than a decade ago -- and the first time the nets' median age was outside of the vaunted 18-49 demo.” http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117988273.html?categoryid=1275&cs=1 The young, the most highly sought demographic for advertisers, are jumping ship and it’s harder to sell an aging market to a sea of advertisers looking to unload their products on those with more disposable income.
With the business model in flux, tech options increasing by the day and the median age of live broadcast viewers reaching retirement, no one yet knows how to accurately price ads, whether online subscriptions will work or what direction consumers will move. Hence, a crisis for the traditional business structure that could possibly inspire changes in the content you see.
So what’s next? Should we stay tuned?
There are a few likely outcomes in trying to maintain the traditional delivery systems, build the new ones, and make sure everyone is still making money. Cable packages may finally be unbundled to allow for more a la carte network selections (though the cable companies won’t let this happen without a fight). The number of programs taking on hybrid forms, aka “transmedia,” will increase. Take NBC’s Heroes for example (though I am possibly the last person in the U.S. who is watching it). Their website features additional graphic novels pulled from the plotlines, interactive games, additional storylines shot as short form videos enhancing the broadcast, and trivia quizzes to play as you watch live. This, of course, also indicates the increased synch across devices. Eventually your phone, the internet, your video rental outlet (Netflix or the nearly out of business corner video store), and the more traditional programming delivery systems (satellite, cable, etc.) will all be one. Technological convergence is where we are and more of it is where we’re headed.
As for the ads, it’s more about old methods than new technology. Commercials have slowly been migrating back into the shows themselves, like in the early days of radio (think product placement). Some sponsors get exclusive coverage on streams. For example, if you’re watching a show on Hulu you’ll see a series of four or five of the same short ad over the course of the program. Other advertisers are sponsoring uninterrupted streams of entire programs – so that you really do want to thank your sponsor. Reality programs are huge sponsorship opportunities; consider BlueFly’s exclusive deal with Project Runway to provide all shoes and accessories for their competitions. Through building online fan communities for programs, producers are able to build a much more accurate profile of their fanbase in order to “sell” them to the advertisers. Online data-mining used to cater ads to users will step up its game. Now, none of this really solves the business model to the degree that the network CEO’s need it to, but it’s a start.
However, improved ad revenue and the convergence of all my personal media devices are not the things that excite me about changes in the industry. What does excite me are things like access, creativity, and innovation. Some critics are suggesting that an “Indie TV movement” might emerge from these industry-wide growing pains (http://gawker.com/5265239/the-end-of-television-as-we-know-it?skyline=true&s=x). Internet Indie TV is already happening to some extent. Drunk History, Funny or Die, Channel 101, Return to Supermans, Yacht Rock, Horrible Turn and God, Inc. are just a handful of the shows and channels emerging out there. In a recent article in WIRED, Bob Garfield notes, “These projects rely less on financial incentives than a sheer desire on the part of the artists to share their enthusiasm with the rest of the world.” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.12/youtube.html. This is absolutely true and you feel that spirit when you watch them, but I’d be surprised if all of these inventive minds didn’t want a little piece of the action, or at least funding for a new camera.
Thankfully the independent sector is innovating the business model too. One example outlined in Scott Kirsner’s recent book Fans, Friends, and Followers is Michael Buckley’s YouTube sensation What the Buck. What the Buck is a 3 times per week 5 – 10 minute pop culture commentary starring Mr. Buckley and his in-your-face, tongue-in-cheek approach to culture watching. Buckley has not only been incredibly successful in building a loyal following (over 650,000 subscribers and 180 million views according to his YouTube profile), but he’s managed to make a living from it through the YouTube partners program. The program splits ad revenues with content producers who allow YouTube to place ads directly in the perimeter of the video. For Michael Buckley, this has meant an income of over $100,000/year according to the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/11/business/media/11youtube.html). Not too shabby, but also, not too common.
My personal work is with documentary filmmakers. The competitive environment they face is daunting. Given the accessibility of the technology, there are more filmmakers out there than ever before, many of whom are extremely talented, and they are all reaching for the same pots of dollars at a time when traditional funding avenues for media are few. While this is incredibly difficult, there are a lot of artists out there taking a more entrepreneurial approach to getting their work done. Some are using “crowd-sourcing” models to fundraising, building their audience from the time they start shooting and inspiring those fans to contribute to the creation of the film. D.I.Y. (Do-it-yourself) distribution is upending the traditional model of film distribution, providing filmmakers with more flexibility and freedom (Mahnola Dargis does a fantastic job outlining these trends here http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/movies/17dargis.html). These creative approaches to getting projects made may not be solving every filmmaker’s budgetary crunch, but they demonstrate the inventiveness of the independents. By hook, crook, stream, or VOD (Video-on-Demand), these stories will be made and seen.
With this increasing amount of work from independents flooding the market to join the network fair, one important role that needs to be filled as new models of media consumption grow is that of the curator. A YouTube future seemingly operates without one, but for many (namely me) that is just too much material to sort through. Trusted programmers, curators, scholars and critics will be in demand in this new era to help us choose, understand, and appreciate what we’re watching.
The couch potato lives to flip channels another day.
A recent study by Deloitte LLP suggests that television viewership is still rising (http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/media/media-world-why-is-tv-viewship-still-rising/19282337)
and it’s possible that TV’s mighty foe, the DVR, may turn out to be its best friend. In 2007, Nielsen changed its practices for measuring viewership, adding a new category of measurement called “Commercial plus three ratings.” “Commercial plus three” measures viewing (including whether or not the commercials were watched) for shows that are watched either live or played back on a DVR within 3 days of the live broadcast. This new rating system has meant the difference between make or break for some shows. According to the New York Times: “House, second among all shows in its live program rating…became the top show in terms of commercials viewed within 3 days with a 5.68 rating (about 6.53 million), gaining almost 18 percent. NBC’s comedy The Office has one of the single biggest gains – 26 percent from its live program rating – to 3.92 (4.5 million) for its rating including playbacks.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/business/media/02ratings.html?_r=2 (I’m betting Jay Leno wishes he didn’t “DVR proof” his show right about now.) Add all this to the fact that Nielsen’s data also reveals that 46% of people still watch the ads when viewing shows on their DVRs, and this mountain seems more like a molehill. (http://nytimes.com/2009/11/02/business/media/02ratings.html)
Yes, there are revolutionary changes afoot, a generation of young viewers moving from the tube to other screens, and countless experiments to be excited about, however I believe it’s fair to say that the beast we know as the couch potato is likely be with us for many years to come. Television shows, or something to their equivalent, will endure. Will they be viewed on an actual TV? With TV households numbering at approximately 114.5 million (Nielsen, Aug 2008), you can bet that they will for some time (particularly if the rate of the HD conversion is any indication of rapid change).
In the end, as a viewing public, we still just want to watch our favorite shows, when we want to watch them, and be able to share them with our friends. How we do that may change over time, but it’s still what we like to do and it’s likely we’ll be doing that for a long time (whether it loses me dates or not!).