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When TV and computers collide                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Feb/14/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights, Science,

Back in the early 1990’s some smart people started noticing that televisions and computers were on a collision course. The majority of these prognosticators used the term “convergence” and viewed television and their related industry as the ultimate winner. People may still watch thing they call “TV shows,” but they are watching them in a lot of places besides on their television. Woops, that didn’t work out as expected! So, what are the forces that weren’t recognized leaving the television industry as a mere relic of its once powerful self and computers as an integral part of society and its entertainment?

Like most things driving people’s behavior, there is seldom one clear and overwhelming force.

Cable television has to be viewed as a key factor in the demise of television. I think the cable coming into my house from the street has been a great way to get my programs without having to adjust “rabbit ears” (old radio frequency mechanical antenna). Leveraging the access they could gain to a larger audience, local independent channels used cable to become national networks without the broadcast syndication contracts used by the big 3 (ABC, CBS & NBC). As a consumer, choices are good, and more choices are better. My cable feed in a few short years went from 6 channels, to 12, to 20, to over 60. Sometime around when we gained 60 channels to choose from, the cable market became saturated and instead of more programming, we got diluted content and quality. It is not unusual to find the same program running in three consecutive time slots on three different channels.

The overwhelming number of channels has manifested a lack of programming to fill the available air time all these channels represent. These gaps have been filled by 30-60 minute long infomercials. Most networks claim to be targeting a specific market; I really don’t understand how a glorified bra fits with the ABC Family Networks theme, or a dance exercise workout with the American Movie Classics theme. One of the best gadgets ever, the remote control allows the couch potato in me to rapidly move past these annoying and mind numbing programs.

Most good inventions and technology have a “glory era” followed by a long and painful death attenuated by a severe case of denial. The railroad industry failed to accept the impact of interstate highways and long haul trucks. Bookstores and the publishing industry failed to foresee the impact of e-readers and online publishing. The American auto industry failed to accept the idea until too late that the American consumer might buy cars from countries we were at war with a few decades earlier. This list could go on and on, but it is basically the story of the now obsolete buggy whip. Industry is often dominated by arrogance in its leadership. Taking a new product and creating a market where you replace a previous standard is a common practice, being prepared to accept the notion that someone will soon do the same thing to you is rare. It seems clear that the television broadcast industry simply does not believe that their audiences will ever leave them.

One of the very clear causes for internet success in the entertainment is the very nature of the internet. The internet as we know it today is a wide open platform. In this open environment creative people can develop almost anything and cheaply share it letting the market pick the winners. In this western boom-town culture, change and innovation happens at hacker speed instead of being driven by big company speed. The established networks all have elaborate business processes and layers of management inhibiting their ability to make any change rapidly. Trying to put a new product or program on a broadcast network can rapidly become a series of insurmountable management hurdles and committee approvals.

Another factor in the demise of television over computers is Moore’s Law. As a reminder, Moore’s Law documents the rate at which technology evolves and advances. Despite our knowledge of Moore’s Law, the scale of rapid advancement in technology is underestimated all the time. You don’t need to be a visionary to recognize how much technology has advanced from yesterday to today. It does take some vision to project into the future and realize how much things will change by tomorrow. Traditionally, Moore’s Law is applied to the speed and scale of processors and memory. I suspect that TV executives believed available bandwidth would continue to be a hurdle allowing TV to come out in front. Eventually Moore’s Law caught up to network infrastructure and computers can now stream video as fast as any television. YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and a host of others have jumped on this to stream everything from your neighbor acting stupid to your favorite movie, and you don’t have to be in your living room to watch it.

The television industry needs to be blamed in part for contributing to their demise. The writers’ strike of 2007 saw more than 12,000 script and screen writers walk off from their work. With the writers off the sets, producers needed to fill air time with content that did not need people writing and editing scripts. For many of these producers, they turned to a little used novelty concept called “reality programming.” Reality TV does not require writers (at least to the same extent), only a theme and a cast of characters the audience can relate to. There are too many variations on this format to count, but some include:

• Following the day to day dangers and exploits of crab fishermen in the Bering Sea
• Aspiring supermodels competing for a contract on the runway
• Chefs competing for notoriety with esoteric ingredients like peanut butter and herring
• Bachelors competing for the attention of an attractive young lady
• Following the day to day activities in a prison
• Wannabe stars demonstrating their singing and dancing skills
• People competing to work for Donald Trump
• A family of hot-heads attempting to build motorcycles no one will ever ride
• A group competing to see who will be the last survivor
• A collection of unemployed construction workers fumbling as gold miners

This list could go on and on, I’m sure I left out the one reality format you probably like. These programs focus on sharing for public digestion, a number of ordinary, or near ordinary people attempting to be exceptional. Often, the shows are more about watching people fail than about watching people succeed. In many cases the “reality” is more staged than the format would imply. Even where the reality is not choreographed, having a camera recording your every word and action leads to an altered reality.

Reality television, while inexpensive to produce has significantly diluted the quality of available programming for the television watcher. Clearly, reality television shows are very inexpensive to produce, minimizing the financial risk for the producers and networks. Unfortunately, this type of low budget programming also means you have not spent much money trying to garner the audience and the result is further migration from the television to the computer.

The television industry is truly an industry. Like any industry, the goal is to make money by doing their particular craft or skill well. For many decades the business model for television was to produce quality programs that would attract large viewing audiences. The larger the audience, the more you could sell adjoining advertising or commercial time for. A well written and produced program would leave a viewer watching the TV during commercials for fear of missing a critical scene or line when the program returned. Under this business model we learned how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop and that certain models of cars should be parked in our driveway.

The new twist to this business model is the “infomercial”, these are 30-60 minute commercials’ that are also the programming content. In this format, the commercial must capture and keep your attention for the entire time frame. I understand from the television side that the network no longer has to produce entertaining content, but I am really pressed to understand how these attract any audience. Of course, if the commercial is the sponsor and develops the programming content, it is their worry whether there is an audience ince the broadcaster is still getting paid regardless. I would rather wash a sink full of yesterday’s dishes than spend 30 minutes being told I should buy a mini-blender going by the name “ninja” or “magic bullet.” I’m sure there is a small audience that actually watches these ads. Maybe they don’t have a computer? Maybe their remote control is lost between the sofa cushions? Maybe they like watching the hot babes doing the “Brazilian butt lift” while they eat Oreo Cookies?

The annoying, but all important Nielsen ratings are reporting that viewership for the big four networks of ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC is down by an average of 7% in the last three years for the 18-49 demographic that the networks consider all-important. I don’t know if this audience is outside mowing the lawn, or working a second job. Studies seem to indicate that a significant portion of this demographic is in front of their computer downloading an episode of “South Park” while Skyping to their friends in another window. There is no quicker way to kill television than by ignoring it.

Whether you believe it or not, big changes are coming to personal entertainment. The internet along with devices like computers and iPads has dissolved the two cornerstones of broadcast television: synchronicity and locality. With the internet and available 3G/4G networks you don’t have to send everyone the same signal with the same programming at the same time, and you don’t have to send it from a local source. People can watch what they when they want and where they want. The addition of tools like chat and Skype allow people spread over large geographies to group together to enjoy a program and share their views real time. More important, the viewer gets to enjoy the content they want whenever they want without being tied to specific days or time slots.

Clearly, time, people and technology do not stand still. The Packard, Rambler, Plymouth and Oldsmobile are now gone, I believe the broadcast television industry is going down that same road.

I suspect my home would be a metaphor for where television is going. While one of my boys is at the computer downloading and watching his favorite programs, the other boys are in front of the television playing an XBox or PlayStation Game.

If my sons are right, television is already dead and you can get all the visual entertainment you want on your computer or iPad in a much more flexible format.

As for me, I turn on the television nearly every evening sometime after 9:30 – 10:00 PM. After an hour or so of channel surfing my mind is numb having put aside most of my day’s stress and am ready to go to sleep. I suppose I could accomplish the same thing each evening if I took up drinking.

I wonder if the television executives are drinking as well.

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