It's nine o'clock, you're finally home from a long day. You microwave a hot pocket, complain to your roommate and hit the couch. You flick on the TV, and click 30 Rock - last week's episode, streaming from the internet.
This is the future of television, as envisioned - and wagered on - by application developers and venture capitalists. With TV networks scrambling to find the right way to put their product on the internet (through Hulu, Netflix and proprietary players), companies like Boxee and Google.tv are betting that viewers will embrace greater control of their entertainment. But is this advancement a good long term bet for entertainment itself?
While the technology is cutting edge, this is not a new story; TV has always been a disruptive, and disrupted, medium. Ever since Philo Farnsworth transmitted his first fuzzy image and RCA put cathode ray tubes in the Jones's house, the Idiot Box has belied its name by being at the center of our discourse. The first big break through, after the color revolution of the 60's, came in the late 70s and early 80's, when cable systems began to break the monopoly on our consciousness held by the big three networks. That's when kids started watching MTV and sports fans ESPN, and the Network men in green visors quaked that ever-expanding choice (especially once digital cable and satellite emerged) would destroy them and their iron-fisted hold on ratings and advertising dollars.
And they thought that amount of choice could be trouble? At least those channels were still on TV, co-existing with the old Networks. Now, everything is in flux.
As The Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien affair showed, there is a great schism in the active television audience. On one side, there are older, more hesitant to change viewers; on the other, younger, internet-savvy who are just as willing, if not moreso, to get their entertainment online. Ostensibly, Leno won out, as NBC valued the higher live TV ratings his show brought in. Put simply, you can get a lot more money for advertisement spots on a show that is broadcast one very television than you can for spots in on demand online video, which is where Conan's young fans were more apt to watch. But the sheer passion and fervor Conan's fans exhibited in protesting his effective firing took NBC by surprise, and helped the deposed host land a new show this fall. A new generation, it became clear, was slowly gaining power.
Here's the rub, though: after speculation that Conan could start the first major internet late night show, he ended up back on traditional television. It just wasn't lucrative enough, being internet-only. It's too fractured of an audience, right now; even the most popular web clips only get so many million hits, while a TV show brings in millions of viewers a night.
Despite the clear disadvantage, one thing is clear: the online audience is growing. Hastened by a down economy in which many jobless, part-time or underpaid young professionals, raised on the internet and responsible for the rise of YouTube, are looking to cut corners and save money any way they can, streaming video is slowly chipping away at traditional TV's dominance. According to consulting firm Parks Associates, 8% of adults watched at least one TV show on their computer at least once a week last year, up from 6% the year before. New subscriptions to cable are slowing to record lows, and most startlingly, the Parks Associates survey found that nearly one million Americans forwent cable altogether, relying solely on the internet to watch their favorite television shows.
For the consumer, there is the obvious advantage: saving money. Netflix is much cheaper than cable, and as of now, Hulu is still streaming for free (though plans to add a premium service have been announced). Laptop TV is convenient and portable, and helps a user cut through all the fluff on TV to get exactly what they want to watch.
But here's the issue: long-term, mass adaptation of this technology could lead to a whole lot more fluff, and eventually, when their favorite series have ended, fluff and only fluff.
Television networks have long depended on a few big shows to anchor their lineups and support artistic, but not as successful, shows. Think: The Office supporting 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Community. Further back, Seinfeld survived only because it had Cheers to support it. Even farther, and the perennial Emmy champs Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere were kept despite terrible ratings because of the strong lineups around them.
But on the internet, there is no Prime Time. There is no Must See TV. There is only TV in a vacuum. You don't keep the tube on for four hours; the screen stays up for only as long as the episode. If a sizable chunk of viewers move away from TV, who will be there to watch new shows? Who will leave the TV on, or even just stumble upon them while channel surfing? Network sitcoms and dramas are expensive productions, and they'll be dead on arrival, from lack of ratings and advertising dollars. And with trendy, youth viewers leading the exodus, it'll be the quality television that shrivels up in the drought.
Supposedly mitigating this dearth of buzz for new shows would be the social networking aspects of the TV streaming services; Boxee has a proprietary social network for its users, which also allows them to share on their existing personal networks. This way, if you're watching a show on Boxee, you can tell your friends about what you're watching. And then, they'll watch it, too. Viral 101. If you had a pulse the last month, you saw the way social networks lit up for LOST. But how well does that work on a mass scale?
Sure, there will always be some good TV; shows like AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad, despite low initial numbers, will shine through for at least short amounts of time because of their sheer quality. But it's hard to envision every worthy show catching on online - for every trending topic, there are a million that don't. Besides, if your friends don't discover it, you won't, either. Signing on will provide much fewer opportunities for shows to catch on than will tuning in.
So, then what? The Conan-Leno debacle was instructive. The reason Leno was scheduled at 10 pm in the first place was because NBC knew a live variety show would be much cheaper to produce than a traditional 10 pm drama. And when Leno failed, The Marriage Ref, a live show with no high cost talent as permanent cast, was among the shows that took its slot.
Then there's Minute to Win It, another live NBC catastrophe that costs only Guy Fieri's hair gel and the going rate of tissue boxes and cotton balls, another response to the lack of advertiser revenue. Ready for the Americanized version of the X Factor, yet another singing reality show? That's on its way, too.
And remember, this is network TV, which is still more accessible than cable networks. Don't think VH1 or Bravo will be coming out with any groundbreaking series anytime soon; they're leading the charge of crappy reality TV.
The rise of reality and live shows are not an accident, or aesthetic change; they're a response to lose of viewer. As that continues, you can expect more of this fluff. So what's the answer?
One direction of the future is in small, online productions. And there is some great online talent out there. But is it sustainable, on a mass scale? Derrick comedy produced some of the best sketches YouTube has seen, but star Donald Glover made the switch to NBC's 30 Rock and now Community. Andy Samberg's Lonely Island was successful, but that led, again, to NBC. Same for Aziz Ansari, with The Human Giant and then Parks and Rec. The crew at CollegeHumor's work paid off with a one season sketch show on MTV, and Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter have made numerous jumps from web to TV. That's the ultimate goal for online content producers - not being online.
Perhaps streaming full networks, for free, is the way to go. They won't get licensing fees from cable providers, but the networks won't have to spend on satellite technology, either, and they'll get more exposure for their all of their shows. Then, for every kid that watches 30 Rock on Hulu or Netflix the next day because they don't have cable, a network has a fighting chance of getting them to watch their desired show, and the night's other offerings, live, with advertisers.
Technology is changing, irrevocably, and TV producers and networks need to shift with it, whether they like it or not. We cannot accept being overcharged for a product we don't need. There must be an adaptation of their product to the way we watch things. But we cannot demand a great product if we're not willing to exhibit a consistent way of consuming it. They're expensive to make, and an age old rule of Hollywood is that you don't work on speculation.
The top-down TV experience is fracturing; the reason this is a problem is that, unlike in politics, it's usually those at the top with the best ideas. Let's hope we don't need a Marriage Ref to jolt an increasingly dissatisfied relationship with television.
Jordan Zakarin is a full time web editor and freelance writer. He's not good at telling jokes, grows patchy facial hair past three days and is available to write anything, from print to web to love letters. Follow him on twitter @JordanZakarin.