The End of TV as We Know It…and Why it is Being Greeted as a Liberation

andy-samberg-tv-guide-coverSo I happened to stumble across a TV Guide from a few months ago with Andy Samberg on the cover. The headline was “The Future of TV” (I know, a cold chill just ran down my spine, too).

Actually, this is misleading. TV Guide actually ran two separate articles in this issue, one about Samberg and another about TV’s future. But the two ran right next to each other and the implication was clearly that Samberg, and his school of digital shorts, is the new wave.

Now, TV Guide is not exactly breaking new ground here. They are basically saying what a lot of people have been saying and thinking for a few years now: the future of television is on the internet, most people who watch TV now don’t do it the same way they used to, the new model is conducive to a new type of entertainment. The best examples of that new type of entertainment, it seems, are “Dick in a Box” and “Lazy Sunday” (I refuse to link to the former).

It’s hard to disagree. Samberg’s shorts seem like the best examples of virals that have thrived based on YouTube and Hulu et. al. The TV Guide article quotes Mike Shoemaker, former SNL producer, as saying, “Many people never heard of YouTube until someone told them to go look on it for ‘Lazy Sunday.’” Based on anecdotal evidence and a foggy memory, this seems about right. The timing certainly checks out—YouTube was only ten months old when “Lazy Sunday” came out.

Samberg’s digital shorts have spread like wildfire thanks to the internet; I don’t know anyone who regularly watches SNL, yet everyone I know is at least aware of Samberg’s shorts.

TV Guide (and others) is saying that this is the wave of the future: a couple of guys making dick jokes and uploading them online. TV Guide, as well as pretty much everyone they talked to, also thinks that this is a great thing—the fact that pretty much everyone now has the ability to create and produce content is going to liberate us all from the tyranny of network programming.

Generally, I should say, I think they are right. It IS good that people can create content online. While I personally do not think Andy Samberg is funny (and I find “Dick in a Box” to be comedically offensive), the fact that the videos can be uploaded and shared is a great thing.

With that said, the tone of this article is the most congratulatory fucking thing I’ve ever read. You’d think we’d cured global warming or captured bin Laden, instead of just finding an easier way to watch TV: “With the low production costs and distribution channels like YouTube, the day is fast approaching when we’ll see tens of thousands of pro and semipro shows covering every interest imaginable…with low barriers to entry, advertising to pay for it (Google is headed there already) and access to a global market, anything’s possible.”

That’s right…anything’s possible. Tim Kring talks about being “taken seamlessly into a virtual world that looks like the set of the show, allowing you to interact with other viewers.” Ben Silverman talks about being in control of the product you consume, Mark Burnett talks about the “dynamic experience of the internet and social networking” coming to television. Lisa Edelstein mentions holograms (though I think at least she was kidding).

The problem with all of this is that nobody extolling the virtues of the new era of television seems to mention the birth pangs that are going to accompany this massive shift. It’s all well and good to talk about how viewers can now choose from more options and control their programming, but the fact is that someone has to pay for it.

TV has been able, up until now, to survive by letting advertisers pay for programming and making that programming available for free to viewers. Advertisers were willing to pay large sums of money to run commercials on TV because large numbers of people would be watching shows while these commercials were airing. By now, though, nobody has to watch commercials. As Eric quipped on Gossip Girl this season, “Who watches TV on TV anymore?”

People now watch TV online, or on DVR, or they at the very least have enough cable channels such that they can channel surf during commercial breaks. Pretty soon it will not make financial sense to pay for TV commercials at all anymore.

The TV Guide article seems to suggest that this loss of revenues will be offset by corresponding drops in production costs. Videos like “Lazy Sunday” can, of course, be made quite cheaply. They talk about Spacevidcast.com, which creates a space news program for $6000 and talk about extending this model to tens of thousands of niche channels.

This model might work for shows about fly-fishing and three minute comedy shorts, but it won’t work for TV as we traditionally know it.

This situation is actually eerily reminiscent of what is going in newspapers right now (and publishing for that matter), except that the loss of newspapers is being treated as a much more morose affair. Everyone is looking at TV’s bright new future while panicking frantically about the future of journalism. Newspapers too have faced the loss of advertising revenue thanks to the Internet. Blogs and cable news replace a lot of news consumption just as YouTube and Hulu have replaced a lot a of entertainment consumption. And just like there is the question of who is going to do the reporting without newspapers, there is the question of who is going to produce television without networks.

With all due respect to Andy Samberg and all the other web programming out there, if you think of truly great shows of the last twenty years, you think of things like The Sopranos, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Wire, 24 (back when it was good), etc. Even things like CSI, Law & Order, ER, and Friends, which aren’t exactly classics, were all immensely popular in their day.

What do all of these shows have in common? They are all fucking expensive to produce. Way too expensive to produce on a budget of $6000 or any web series’ budget. TV Guide mentions “advertising to pay for it,” but I think it’s pretty clear that that doesn’t yet exist. Internet advertising is still very much an imperfect science, and how exactly advertisers will support online videos is still a mystery (YouTube apparently cost Google nearly half a billion dollars last year alone).

The only real advertising model provided in the article comes from Joyce Schwartz (described as a “media futurist”) who says:

We’ll have personalized sponsors sponsoring programming we customize. Say you want to customize programming for yourself that puts you in a good mood. Call it your ‘Happy Programming,’ and a sponsor will show you only ads that fit in with the type of programming that you choose…Say, for example, that you are an expectant mom and you have all of your content programmed to baby-related things. Your sponsor might be Johnson & Johnson. 

 Now, let’s set aside the quasi-Orwellian feel of that proposal. The main problem with this proposal is that THAT IS NOT HOW ADVERTISING WORKS. The whole concept of advertising is built on the premise that it will be consumed by large groups of people. I know in Schwarz’s scenario multiple people will have the same sponsor, but Johnson & Johnson is not going to finance programming without having the faintest idea of who is going to be watching what.

The main problem is that for all of our concern with personalizing and individualizing our entertainment, of liberating ourselves from what the networks force feed us, we have forgotten the function networks serve. Put simply, they connect advertisers with programmers and programmers with viewers. The idea that technology has made that need obsolete is only true to a point—in order to have large scale productions (and most quality productions are large scale), you need to have the guaranteed large scale audience that only networks can provide.

On perhaps a more quaint level, the focus on controlling your own entertainment is a little disappointing. Yes, I want to be able to choose what and when I watch what I watch. But art and entertainment are meant to be consumed by a large group. They are meant to foster a communal spirit and to highlight shared experiences. If we keep talking about how important it is to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of network programming, eventually the only shared experiences we’ll have left are Andy Samberg’s dick jokes.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. John thanks for the promo — all promo is good. BUT actually advertisers are already working as I described. They are doing behaviorial targeting and market segmentation has been working successfully in cable advertising for the last decade or so. Comcast has a whole division devoted to segmented delivery. With TV for the mobile world — your operator can segment no matter where you are. Plus people self-segment and identify based on psychographhics and other factors (interests ie parenting etc) when offered coupons, gifts and special deals. So this is happening. And YES I am a “media futurist” and I’ve written 200 articles on the future of media and entertainment and how to monetize it using sponsorship, adveritisng and other even newer models. Oh yes, plus 6 books including the first textbook on multimedia which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month. PS My name is spelled “Joyce Schwarz”

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on June 29, 2009 at 4:43 PM

      Thanks for commenting Joyce, and sorry for spelling your name wrong. I didn’t mean to minimize your accomplishments or expertise, and I’m sure advertisers are already heading there as you say. My point wasn’t that market segmenting is a myth, but rather that it cannot sustain programming of a certain quality. As audience markets continue to segment, any one programmer’s pool of advertising revenue is going to go down. You mention the success of cable, but that is also supplemented by subscription fees. So, segmenting is happening, but will it result in quality programming? I’m skeptical.

      As for your advertising model, forgive me for misinterpreting, but you seem to suggest much more than just segmentation. You talk of “customizing” programming and choosing sponsors down even to the brand name. But what is the sense in an advertiser paying to reach someone who has already picked them? This model seems to completely invert the nature of advertising, which seems to be inherently information I would not seek out or choose in the first place. The future may look something like what you describe, but I think there’s going to be long period of trial-and-error before we get there.

      Reply

  2. Have you ever heard of TIVO? People self-segment for that and there are still sponsors there!

    Reply

  3. […] months ago, John S wrote about the unclear future of television; this week, Slate did the same thing. WITH NO HAT TIP! All we want is an apology, our 75 cents […]

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  4. […] a post way back in June, John S discussed the future of TV–a topic only now addressed by Nicholas Carr in the NY Times […]

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