This is the year we gave up on having cable service and a traditional phone line. We have joined the ranks of the internet-only! There’s not much to say about the phone line; I sort of miss its reliability but it really didn’t offer much else.
TV is more interesting. The idea of watching pre-recorded shows broadcast at set times is obviously doomed. But it’s less clear what the future holds. Here are 5 questions about the future of TV that intrigue me.
1. Will TV shows as we know them survive?
I say yes, broadly speaking. Humans need storytelling. Kenneth Burke called stories “equipment for living”; Robert McKee expands on this in his book Story:
Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream … Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.
There is enormous demand for storytelling, and in particular for the filmed variety right now. Not only that, but movies are too long for everyday modern life; we need something more bite-sized, and TV shows are just that.
Freedom from a broadcast schedule, with its half-hour and one-hour time slots packed with as much advertising as people can take, might open up some leeway in the length of a show. But there are limits – at the upper end, production costs, audience attention span (and why not just make a movie anyway). The interesting place to explore is probably by going shorter. There could also be some freedom from current season lengths, if business models change.
Will lavishly-produced, big-budget shows survive? Or will people come to watch the work of talented amateurs, making stories cheaply? While the internet democratises distribution, and equipment like cameras and software gets cheaper, making stories is hard, and filming stories is a huge amount of work. Meanwhile, the demand is there for large volumes of high quality content. I don’t see professional shows going away any time soon.
In fact, the really interesting thing for me is that we could simply see shows get better. More on this below.
2. If TV shows survive, how will we pay for them?
One of the big things that drove us away from cable service was the pricing model. The overall cost is way too high and you pay for so much crap that you never watch. In our new world, we have Hulu Plus at $8/month, together with Amazon instant video for movie rentals – they’re usually something like $4 and I love the depth of their catalogue. We’ll probably flip Hulu for Netflix at some point when we need something fresh to watch. And I can see us adding the BBC iPlayer when it comes here next year. We have Amazon prime but I don’t really count that because we got it for the 2-day deliveries – the video archive is a strange extra. I also paid for $20 for a season of NFL game rewind – more on that later.
Anyway, the point is – we may not quite get everything we’d like to watch, but there’s enough, and the price difference is astonishing.
Looking into the future as a consumer, I’d like to:
- Pay less! And not in a cheapskate way … I mean that I don’t want to pay for stuff that I don’t watch.
- Have some more flexibility, e.g. between subscribing to stuff versus paying per view
- Know how much it would cost to buy myself out of all adverts?
Apart from simply saving myself money, I’m very interested in the longer term in how this affects the nature of the content produced. If the future includes a more direct connection between what you watch and what you pay for, that has some big implications. For example, shows no longer need be measured by audience share alone. It should open up the possibility for niche shows that have small but passionate fanbases who are willing to pay for them. Maybe – please – shows like Firefly could thrive in this world? And if creators don’t always need to aim purely for audience share or advertising demographics, maybe TV shows can lose some of the generic, bland, formulaic traits they suffer from too often.
That’s pretty exciting, and should be good for consumers and content creators alike. The only person hurt is the middleman … speaking of which:
3. Will cable companies survive?
Easy: yes! At least for the foreseeable future. Here’s why:
- A depressing reason: inertia. A large number of people will keep paying their cable bill without thinking too hard about it. Just check out these incredible stats on how much AOL still make from dial-up users, including charging those users extra for things like email – yes, partly rural customers, but still …
- They have a complete monopoly on the wires to your house. So whether you’re paying for their TV service or want to watch streaming video over the internet, they’re going to make you pay them somehow. Hopefully projects like Google Fiber can start to break this, but it will take a lot of time.
- They are going to cling onto content rights. Average users don’t have any emotional ties to old technology; they just need the time of the new tech to come. But they do have emotional ties to their favourite content. Bet on the cable companies to make exclusive deals where possible and withhold their own content from other channels. The really ‘premium’ content (live sports, big movies, big-budget shows) is so expensive to licence that it will be hard for other startups to just pay for rights. Netflix is just about getting big enough to begin doing this, but only a little.
- Oh and they are hedging their bets anyway – Comcast owns Hulu …
It’s sad, because for me, dealing with Comcast was just miserable:
- Tied in on long contracts (we were in for a year; many of their deals hold you for 2 years)
- Paying a large amount of money per month for a ridiculous number of channels that I had no interest in
- Paying silly extra charges (when can we all just get over HD and realise that it’s normal?) and equipment rental fees
- The most horrible user experience imaginable. Take their on-demand movie service for example: a maze of ugly menus. When you watch a trailer, half of the screen is blocked with a “Buy now?” dialogue box, making the trailer almost unwatchable, and making me scared to touch the remote. It’s never clear which of the two buttons on the “Buy X?” dialogue boxes are highlighted … am I saying yes or no? Should I just turn my box off and start again to be sure? Now we use Amazon Instant Video and I wish we’d done it all along … it’s the way it should be.
The real question is, what horrible contortions will they go through, what misery will they inflict on their customers, as their business comes under threat? I have a feeling things may get worse for customers before they get better.
4. What about live sports?
9 of the top 10 most-watched TV programmes in America in 2010 were NFL games - the other one, at number 9, was the Academy Awards. Yes, live sports are enormously popular. I read an interesting theory recently from Gregg Easterbrook, that sports have become especially successful because of their lack of predictability, contrasted with seemingly ever-more-formulaic TV shows. He wonders whether this also explains the success of dancing/singing/skating/whatever shows, which for all their faults, offer that same sense of unpredictability.
I too love watching sports, in fact more than anything else on TV. So how did I just walk away this year? The simple answer is that we had triplets! I don’t have time to watch much any more, and when I do … it’ll be at some random moment of their convenience (i.e. when we finally get them to sleep), which is not necessarily when sports are on. So this year, I paid $20 for NFL game rewind. You can watch any NFL game in full, in HD, ad-free … just not live (that’s why it’s $20 and not $300 for the season). It’s not the same knowing the result, but it bizarrely suits my life right now.
So live sports are always brought up as TV’s unique advantage, because there isn’t a good internet-only service for watching them. But I feel like you have to add ‘yet’ to that sentence.
Of course, if the cable companies have any sense, they’ll cling onto these rights for dear life (presumably they’ll then squeeze every penny they can out of their customers). This will be a hard situation to break for a startup. The rights are so expensive, get negotiated so infrequently and have various legal restrictions around them too.
Is there any hope for the consumer? Maybe. The most hopeful avenue is the big sports leagues deciding to go direct to consumers. In fact, the NFL already do, provided you don’t live in the USA. I don’t know how much of a cut they get of a cable sports package, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they could charge a consumer more and still be a very appealing option.
In the long run, I’m not convinced I’d want to maintain paying relationships as a consumer with multiple different leagues. Here’s what I’d really love: a single web service where I could view all my live sports, and be billed in one place, with flexible options:
- Subscription to a specific league or sport. Perfect for the big leagues like the NFL and EPL. Ideally, different options of subscription length.
- Pay-per-view for big games. Maybe I don’t have the time to watch enough EPL in general, but I’m dying to see the Manchester derby. Maybe I’m one of those only-watch-the-Super-Bowl football fans.
- I’m not sure whether the less-popular sports would warrant their own subscriptions, or whether some kind of bundling would make sense there.
- Free highlights (the NFL is worth mentioning again for the quality of free highlights on their website).
There’s an awesome business idea. At least, it’d be awesome to be a customer!
5. What about the BBC?
Unlike the situation with cable, I actually love the BBC. I really hope they do well in whatever this new world becomes. The licence fee is a bit of an odd thing, tied to old technology concepts, but I don’t think that’s an insurmountable problem. It’s a very reasonable amount of money, hard to undercut.
They also produce plenty of content, of course. And I like the fact that they’ve adapted pretty well already, technologically. iPlayer has been around for a long time now and is by far the best streaming video experience I’ve used. I can’t wait for it to come to the US next year – sign me up already! It’ll be interesting to see if they manage to build a decent number of paid users overseas, or whether it’ll just be a bunch of homesick expats who miss Have I Got News for You?
Who to kill
Paul Graham wrote this piece that did the rounds after the SOPA debacle called “Just kill Hollywood”. I could probably have framed this piece as “Just kill cable”.
While he’s right that there are great businesses to be built finding new ways to entertain people, I don’t see them reducing the importance of TV shows or films to people. TV watching has continued to rise throughout the recent years of Facebook/Farmville/Angry Birds; being glued to TV shows doesn’t seem to be incompatible with newer forms of entertainment.
Because people love stories. And sports. And fat people crying about losing weight, women competing to marry a farmer, beauty pageants for 4-year-olds … WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?
But I agree with him fully on the idea that distribution and funding models seem ripe for creative destruction.
I am highly optimistic about the future, for both content creators and consumers. And whoever ends up in control, please can I have some new Firefly?