Broadcasting was the new media of the mid 20th century. But how will TV and a network look alike in a not too distant future? Tim Wu’s highly recommended piece Netflixs War on Mass Culture, as published in New Republic, sums it up nicely:
What remains of live programming is reserved for sports programming, breaking news stories, talent contests, and the big awards shows. Nearly all scripted shows become streaming shows, whether they are produced or aggregated by Netflix or Amazon, CBS or a finally unbundled HBO—or even an unexpected entrant such as Target, which recently launched a Netflix competitor. The new networks compete based on the their ability to make the right original programming decisions and secure the best old shows, as well as the prescience of their recommendation engines. But ultimately they’re all just selling access to piles of content to be perused at the viewer’s desire. Oddly enough, it’s a vision that actually makes television a lot more like the rest of retail.
Or like supersized video-rental store, just without the physical media to handle (and no late charges as a main pillar of the business model).
In a way, this shift sounds highly likely. But I think the reality will play out a bit differently. Let’s start with the live-question: Nearly all scripted shows become streaming shows. Of course they will. As they do already. The question is just: when does the streaming start? Right now, it’s a hodgepodge of multiple rights sold to multiple parties starting at different time slots after the premiere. In the future, the streaming might start at the very moment of the release. But still you might want to start with a live programming of the show, at least for the pilot episode. Because it’s good marketing. Because you might want to leverage the audience flow of a major live event. Because, even with streaming, there is a certain point in time when you will make the show available (so why not celebrate this).
For a new series with a broad appeal, an introductory time slot after an American Idol-franchise or a major sport event will always make sense. After the launch, the long tailing starts anyway. But how about your typical cable channel, featuring reruns of 80ies successes like Murder She Wrote? Shouldn’t they have a hard time to compete with the full access powerhouses like Netflix and Lovefilm? Of course they will. As a broadcasting pure play, their role is changing from a pillar of the entertainment system to a burden to system operators (high cost!) to consumers (high cost!).
But in a more hybrid world of broadcasting and on demand access, the seemingly outdated broadcasting part can still play a role, offering marketing, discovery mechanisms (e.g. a scheduled playlist), a brand, and the incentive of potential scarcity. (As daily deal e-commerce sites show: it’s an incentive, that works. But as Groupon demonstrated: don’t expect to build your next Amazon on that principle.)
And, not to forget: the Netflix-model has some built in limits. If it’s the only pay- or premium offer you subscribe too, it’s a great deal. If Netflix and a handful of competitors dive too deeply into exclusive mad-for-shows, the deal might get a bit more expensive.
As xkcd, the drawn voice of the 21st century nerd, nicely states the kind of obvious: TV has lost its “must see”-character. But this switch from “must see” to “I don’t care” isn’t primarily about TV as in scripted show or live event. There’s lots of boring stuff, and some fantastic highlights, for practically any target group (like in the decades before, like with any other media).
The problem of TV is its molded state of delivery.