Mind Dump onThe Future of Television

Our conversations about Firefly and the Long Tail suggest that there is a good deal of public interest out there in the idea of viewer-supported television. I am convinced this is an idea whose time has come. It may not happen with Firefly, The West Wing, Global Frequency or Arrested Development, but it will happen for some show sooner or later. I for one want a ringside seat to see how the experiment plays itself out. Almost every day brings news that suggests small steps closer to this goal. Nobody's Watching? Guess Again

CMS graduate student Sam Ford reports at the c3 blog about a pilot for a show called Nobody's Watching which got rejected by NBC and the WB Network but is now being distributed via You-Tube. So far, the show has received several hundred thousand downloads from people curious to see a new series from Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs and Spin City, which is essentially a sitcom about the networks producing a reality television series about two guys trying to create a sitcom. Lawrence saw the series as a commentary on the current state of network television; network executives worried that it was too meta -- that is, it was too complex a concept to easily communicate to viewers. (It's also likely that with two other television network themed shows starting this fall -- Tina Fey's 30 Rock and Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip -- they were afraid they might oversaturate the market on this untested genre). In the old days, that would have been the end of the story but the You-Tube distribution has started to shift the network's perceptions of the pilot.

Ford writes:

Now, with its grassroots support, Lawrence claimed that it was being revisited by NBC and that he had had calls from both ABC and Comedy Central. And one has to wonder if the CW Network, after WB passed on the show, might now be interested in having a show with such a grassroots following built into its debut.

However, Lawrence sums up the reason why this experiment is successful and why the networks are stupid not to release their pilots more often when trying to decide how to formulate a future lineup. According to reporter Bill Carter in Monday's New York Times story, Lawrence "said he believed this was exactly the kind of development that television needed to break all kinds of hidebound traditions, including presumptions about what people will and won't watch as comedy, and decisions that are made based on small organized focus groups."

If the masses are willing to participate as a test audience, why not launch a legion of pilots on YouTube or allow people to BitTorrent them. Not only do you end up with shows developing strong grassroots potential before they ever hit the air, but you get a wider response to the show in a situation where viral marketing and word-of-mouth give the feedback as to which shows will generate the most popularity based on number of downloads. Of course, the only shows that would be hurt with a system like this one are shows that are low in viewer interest, that are not appealing...but those are the shows that would hit the air and get cancelled soon, anyway. And, for more complicated concepts like the one in Nobody's Watching, releasing the show on YouTube ahead of time allows fans to become educated on the concept and prepared for the premise before the show is ever broadcast.

By the way, readers of this blog who are interested in learning more about current trends in the media industry should check out Sam's posts at the C3 blog. This past week has seen posts about Survivor, Paul Simon, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the plight of weekly papers, and the successful web-based series Soup of the Day.

Tivo and Transformation

A reader sent me a link to this interesting article about the networks push to try to disable the fast forward button on our Tivos and other digital recording devices. Nick argues, however, that this is not the primary reason why networks should be worried about digital video recording devices:

Newer TiVo boxes can connect directly to the internet. Since they are internet enabled, they can download internet content. Combine that with the hard-drive and on-demand abilities, and Tivo is now a television network. Maybe even the television network.

Another way to describe a TiVo is "a box that saves your favorite content, whenever it is played, and allows you to watch it anytime you want." This is the way many people watch TV. The network is irrelevant. With some marketing savvy, any show could bypass the network gatekeepers and go direct to TiVo. RocketBoom did - and the resulting talent fallout shows a glimpse of what happens when the network is no longer relevant. The balance of power shifts to the talent, or at least equalizes it. Not only will networks lose viewers, they will have to compete on lower margins for high-quality content.

So, starting from a very different perspective (focusing on hardware rather than on cultural practices), this writer ends up more or less at the same place Sam Ford does: a world where viewers get to sample a broader range of different television content than would currently make its way onto network television; where some shows might remain "long tail" content which needs to be supported by committed but concentrated niches of viewers; where others would build up large enough grassroots followings to start to interest a network programmer. Right now, we are starting to see brands go to the network to pitch content which they think would be a good vehicle for their products -- that's more or less what happened with Coca Cola and American Idol. We might also see producers test market shows via YouTube and try to figure out which network is most interested in serving their fan followings.

Globalizing Television

Let's toss one more variable into the mix: imagine you are an international media producer who has content you think would have some strong appeal in the United States -- a producer of a successful Japanese anime program which has not yet been picked up by the Cartoon Network, the producer of a Latin American Telenovela which wasn't selected by one of the Spanish Language channels, the developer of a cult comedy from Australia that hasn't a clear point of distribution in this market. You've already covered your core costs of production in your own national market; you've picked up some syndication purchases from neighboring countries. Why not sell that content directly to your consumers here? There's a whole world of media producers out there right now. American companies have been largely successful in blocking most of them from having access to the U.S. market. But this is starting to change and the development of new infrastructures to support the distribution and monetizing of contents will simply accelerate the rate of change.

Of course, the interesting question is whether we will still be calling this stuff "television" content given that it neither uses television as a technology for distribution and consumption of this content (or at least doesn't necessarily do so in a world where there are video iPods and computer screens and...) nor does it use the broadcast networks as the primary system of producing, filtering, or distributing content. Yet, the dramatic and genre structures of television -- short units, serialization, recurring characters, etc. -- are likely to remain in place for sometime to come. Most of us, push come to shove, like watching television even if we don't necessarily fill that the current networks offer us the broadest possible range of options.