Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 195: The Future of Television

future of TV

There's an old screenwriter's trick, when you're bereft of ideas, to open a newspaper and link 2 or 3 random articles to devise a story premise.

I'm told some hedge fund managers similarly link a handful of current events to concoct the argument that their clients should buy or sell a certain stock.

This week a few unrelated events caught my own attention which, when combined, might just reveal the future of television.

The first actually began about three months ago, when a crew of university students rented the house across the street.

Like a lot of students, they're either too broke or too disinterested to buy curtains. Unfortunately for me, there are no side benefits in that since they're all guys. On the other hand, being guys, the first piece of furniture they moved in was a massive HD television they hung on the wall facing the front window.

So every night when I walk the dog, it's not hard to notice what they're watching. But what I've come to realize is -- I've never seen them watching a TV show.

The set gets used for a lot of video games, facebook updates and twitter messages. One night I thought they were watching a movie, when the screen suddenly went black and returned them to the familiar "Recently Added" Netflix screen, where they clicked another selection.

Now, I'm not sure how pervasive their habits might be, but it shed some light on a business article I read last week about how there are something like 3 HD television sets in Canada for every HD cable box that can actually supply them with the proper signal.

This was spun as a huge revenue opportunity for cable providers as they sold boxes to all those people who hadn't realized they needed one to fully enjoy their new flat screen.


I think what's happening out in the real world is exactly the opposite.

First, I'd wager that more and more people are mostly using their smart TVs to watch DVDs, play games and stream online content.

What's more, about 3 years ago, I bought a HD antenna that allowed me to get several local channels in better quality than my cable provider without having to pay a monthly fee for the privilege. At the time, the dealer told me about 1000 people a month in Canada were making the same decision I had.

While that number may have leveled off, I would seriously doubt it's in decline.

I think the reality is that more and more of us have become our own content programmers, having had enough of the multi-channel universe of programming that just seems to repeat shows we've already seen from one specialty channel or tier to another.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, news came out that the once mighty and unchallenged "Number One" American television network, NBC, the home of "Appointment TV", has lost 18% of its audience this year and is regularly eclipsed by the Spanish language Univision network.

Like the cable box article, this news was spun as "an opportunity" since a single hit might -- I repeat "might" -- get their numbers up. At least for one night of the week.

But what if the night that potential new hit was to debut was Tuesday, when last Tuesday 6.5 Million Americans and Canadians stood in line to purchase the new version of "Call of Duty"?

Don't you think there's a good chance that Tuesday night there were upwards of 6.5 Million North Americans not in the least interesting in watching whatever NBC or anybody else put on TV because they were trying out their new game?

call of duty

"Call of Duty" earned $400 Million worldwide on Tuesday. And between now and Christmas there are a half dozen similarly popular gaming titles issuing new versions and anticipating equally rabid fans -- and rich paydays.

Maybe Gamers don't watch that much regular television to begin with. But you get the feeling their ranks are growing much faster than those who are just happy to plop down on the couch and let whatever is being served wash over them.

Final observation…

Wednesday night, I was watching a hockey game while surfing my Twitter feed and on the latter heard about the riot at Penn State University. I jumped over to CNN, only to find Piers Morgan interviewing somebody nearing the end of their personal 15 minutes of fame.

I dropped down a channel to Headline News to see if they had coverage, finding Dr. Drew kibitzing with somebody just beginning their celebrity 15. Over to CBC who were running a documentary repeat. Way down the dial to SUN TV where somebody in a bad suit was really annoyed about -- something.

Thirty seconds later, I found the live coverage I wanted -- on my laptop.

In this era of 24 hour news cycles, the guys who seem least aware of that fact are those broadcasting the news.

They remain locked into the decades old model of news at noon, six and eleven -- or ten at CBC -- or nine if you want to see the exact same version of "The National" on the CBC News Network.

I came to the conclusion that all of this is happening because, while you and I are embracing all the new technologies on offer, our television networks and cable companies are locked into business models that support their own internal needs but fail to service the audience.

This week, the usual suspects will troop up to Gatineau for CRTC hearings on OTT (Over the Top) services. Nothing will likely evolve from these meetings beyond arguments for regulation to shore up or sustain the collapsing business models that we have. There will then be another round of hearings in May.

And in the meantime, more and more people will either discover the new entertainment options they have or discover how easy it is to devise workarounds to watch what they desire.

More of us will become our own program directors and program schedulers. And we'll have less and less interest in a system that says you need four separate sports channels to watch your home team, or you need your news filtered and interpreted before its presented for your consumption.

More of us will find that "Call of Duty" is more engaging than "Republic of Doyle" or yet another singing competition.

In short, more of us will realize we can make our own choices.

And those people won't be interested in handing that freedom back to somebody else.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

1 comment:

rick mcginnis said...

Jim - I can only use my own anecdotal experience to add to this. I am, despite being forcibly returned to freelance status, still known as a TV critic, and still write about TV. But we haven't had cable in our home since last winter, due to simple budgetary realities. Nevertheless, I'm still able to write about TV and new shows. I won't insult anyone by explaining how.

Most young people don't bother with cable TV or satellite when they move out of their parents' house. An internet connection is more essential, but they've been intimately aware of how to catch what little broadcast content they want for (virtually) free since they were high school sophomores, and don't about when they're (not) missing. While they no longer lug boxes of LPs or CDs into their dorm rooms, at least they have to shoulder the burden of a 42" (or larger) screen.