The Future of Television (Circa 1999)

Bill Densmore of Clickshare recently shared with me the text of an e-mail I had sent him in May 1999 describing what I saw as one scenario for the future of digital culture. I decided I wanted to share it with you to spark a conversation about how far we have gone towards realizing some of the key elements of this scenario as well as how far we have yet to go on other fronts. (the reference points to The X-Files and My So-Called Life give you some sense of the time when this was written.) I was responding to an essay he had written about micropayments and the struggle to insure the diversity of digital culture. Everything from here is part of the original text:

My own research has centrally concerned the ways that popular audiences consume and create value from the resources provided them by the mass media. As I suggested yesterday, I don't find the lowest common denominator model helpful for thinking about the success of most popular entertainment. Rather, I see the popular audience composed of a coalition of different

audience interests who may share certain programs, films, stories in common but who get fundamentally different things from them and who interact with them in different ways. The most creative producers understand this now, while the broadcasting paradigm helps to mask the degree of diversity and fragmentation of the contemporary media audience. It is clearer when we go on line and survey the range of web sites constructed around a particular series or parse through the flame wars on fan discussion lists which occur when radically different reading publics are brought together.

A second focus of my research concerns what I call "cultural convergence," which refers to the social and cultural changes in how we relate to media content in our everyday life that help prepare the way and establish the market viability of technological convergence. When we try to understand what is happening in our culture, we see two things: a growing desire to participate

more fully in our media culture -- not just as passive consumers but active transformers of media content -- and a growing tendency to tighten corporate control over intellectual property law. This is resulting in a crackdown on fan web sites, MP3 files, etc. and thus a closing off of the cultural participation encouraged by the web.

Now, here's what I imagine occurring when we add something like your clickshare to the mix -- along with dramatic improvements in the delivery technology for digital media:

1)All television content becomes available via some form of webtv, including past episodes. If I want to join a series midprogress, I can go back and watch earlier episodes for a reasonable rate with micropayments as the means of exchange between me and the television producers.

2)Television series will be annotated to link back to relevant back story information. If I am watching X FILES and there is reference made to Muldar's sister and her disappearance, I can be offered the chance to see those earlier scenes, again at a modest price. This will enable even more elaborate form of serialization and backstories in American television, a tendency that has grown in the two decades since the introduction of the VCR.

3) Fan websites will play an important role in the cultural economy, if they are allowed to function not unlike the Amazon Associates program. Fan sites will comment on or annotate the aired episodes, thus establishing reasons why various kinds of viewers might want to see them for the first time or watch them again. They can link back to the producer's sites where the

episodes can be downloaded for a viewing fee and the producers will in turn provide an incentive to the fans for creating sites which essentially help market their products. At the same time, fans should be allowed freedom to discuss, comment, and appropriate the material in any way they want since doing so helps to establish niche market value for the content.

4)Certain series may debut on network and then move rather rapidly to the web where their continued support will come from viewers paying to watch them. This will be attractive in cases -- such as MY SO-CALLED LIFE -- where a series attracts an intense following in a definable demographic group but does not register a broad-enough viewership to be powerful according to the Nelson Ratings measurement. The ability to collect payments on a per view basis for a broad audience will enable continued production of such series assuming price scale can be resolved.

5)New networks may emerge which reflect under-served segments of the population that are geographically dispersed and therefore couldn't be addressed by existing broadcast and cable structures. Examples might include various language groups that constitute immigrant populations or the gay and lesbian community. Here, original programming is produced and made available for a modest pay-per-view fee.

6)International circulation of media product is facilitated. We can imagine viewer-supported networks emerging for British/Australian comedy or Japanese Anime for example, which will enable these products fair access to the American market. It will be possible to access television without regard to its original point of origin. Again, this depends on some structure that allows us to pay for what we watch at a modest enough scale to make this attractive to the average viewer on a regular basis.

The micropayment structure would seem to offer the best basis for this model, which leads us step by step towards a more diverse media culture that more fully reflects the range of viewer taste and interest. It will create new basis for profits for the entertainment industry while also enabling more popular access to media content. What is needed is a structure which can lower the per unit cost (and thus broaden the potential base of viewership), can be collected quickly and efficiently, and can be distributed to a range of different media producers as opposed to create narrow gateway companies that will once again determine what we can and cannot see based on broadcast models of the mass audience.