Is This the End of Television As We Know It?

The Future of Television- Annenberg Innovation Lab Summit from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

This video captures a really extraordinary and timely conversation that was recently hosted by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of its 2013 research summit. The panel was called "Transmedia and the Future of Television," but it was really much more focused on exploring the future of television -- particularly the future of the "program bundle" at a time of tremendous transition in the ways television operates within our culture. (If you want to know more about the research we are doing on transmedia, check out the "T is For Transmedia" report which the Innovation Lab released a few months ago in cooperation with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center).

I was moderator and the panelists were:

  • Gabriel Kahn, Professor of Professional Practice, Journalism, USC
  • Hardie Tankersley, VP of Platforms and Innovation, Fox Broadcasting
  • Aaron DeBevoise, Executive Vice President, Network Programming, Machinima
  • Howard T. Stein, Strategist for Entertainment, Facebook Inc.

The concept of "bundling" -- that is, the selling of a package of networks to subscribers rather than offering them a la carte -- has been a foundation of the cable television industry over the past several decades: cable companies advertise based on the number of channels they offer, lesser interest networks survive because they are attached to high interest networks, and industry insiders claim that this is an approach that supports diversity. Others argue that bundling is to television which block booking was to the Hollywood studio era and that sooner or later, disagregation, which has hit the music and newspaper industries, will hit television also. Part of the premise of the panel was that events over the past year or so have been transformative in how television content gets funded, produced, and distributed, and how we consume it. Part of the goal of the panel was to get people from journalism, from the television industry, and from some of the emerging digital challengers to talk about these changes and how they feel they will impact the future of the medium.

What follows are some of the key indicators that the nature of television is undergoing some radical shifts as we write (some of them are discussed here, some did not get talked about because of time limits, and some have occurred since the conference, but they all represent good background for watching this session).


  • YouTube announces that 100 media companies and celebrities have signed up to launch their own channels for content distribution and the company has solicited a broader and more diverse group of people to curate their own playlists, directing attention on content which Wired describes as having a “cable feel” but being “way more niche than cable ever could.”

  • Surpassing the speed and scope of the earlier Susan Boyle phenomenon, Kony 2012,  a 30 minute documentary about child soldiers in Africa, reaches more than 77 million views in under four days through grassroots circulation, drawing more eyeballs that week than the highest rated television series on American television and the top grossing Hollywood box office hit that week, combined. Its success has since been followed by the global circulation of Psy’s “Gangem Style,” which has helped to introduce KPop content into the U.S. Market.

  • Hulu is offering an extensive array of international television programs as exclusive online content to their subscribers, suggesting that national borders are increasingly arbitrary in terms of television consumption, even for U.S. consumers.
  • Amazon announces that it is commissioning eleven pilots for production as web-based television series, with the pilots to be available to the public, which will help decide which ones will go into full production.

  • Some media observers note that brands may have gained greater advantage over their spontaneous social media responses during the Super Bowl blackout than they did for their paid advertising during the event. In any case, most of the brands now release their spots to YouTube and other video sharing sites prior to the Super Bowl event itself.

  • According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form.”

  • A federal appeals court in New York upholds a lower court ruling in favor of Aereo, Barry Diller's Internet startup company, which streams content from local stations via the internet without compensating the original rights holders.
  • Cablevision and Verizon have filed legal action challenging the bundling of television networks as an unreasonable constraint on trade and a threat to innovation.
  • Facebook invests heavily in becoming the central vehicle for supporting mobile television around the world.

  • Participant Media announces that their new television network, Pivot, will be available to "cordcutters" through a mobile app, whether or not they subscribe to cable television.
  • Prospect Park has brought former ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, from cancelation via web distribution.

Taken collectively, these shifts represent a significant tipping point in terms of how television is produced, distributed, and consumed. Does this spell the end of television as we know it? What happens when "television" is less a technology than a set of programming practices? What happens when more people "cut the cord" or when the industry no longer depends on the "bundle"? What happens when the intensity of fan response may become as important as the quantity of viewers in shaping which programs remain in production?