Anti-Buzz: Groundhog Day

I promised a tech prediction last week. My first prediction, in simplest terms, is that 2013 will be Groundhog Day for television. After this year we’ll know whether we face a prosperous spring of on-demand television, or another few years of broadcast winter.

An either/or prediction? No – plainly, I think 2013 is the year that breaks the armor of the old broadcast television paradigm – but even if it isn’t, we’ll have a clearer picture of the near-future impact of on-demand television on the entertainment industry.

The nature of television programming has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, and those changes are better leveraged by online distribution than by the traditional broadcast model. Online, on-demand distribution of television is only the natural extension of tech trends we’ve already seen: VCRs, TiVo, Television-on-DVD sales. The primary flaw of broadcast television is the timing. You, the viewer, used to have no control over when you watched things. You probably underestimate how much this simple fact influenced the quality of programming. Reruns and a glut of cable channels aside, there was essentially no guarantee that you’d ever be able to watch a piece of television again once it aired the first time. Television was cheap and disposable, and because of that, only cheap and disposable television was ever made. Television used to only ever be in competition with whatever else was on at the time.

The moment viewers could control when they watched things, (that is, the moment they could record television and watch it on their own time), the quality of television began to change. Now studio’s aim to produce content that people would want to own and watch again. The complexity and production value of television – especially the dramas – has skyrocketed over the past two decades. Broadcast television – that is, the practice of requiring consumers to follow the producers’ schedule – is decidedly anathema to the more-repeatable, suck-you-in, cult-hit-television model that Hollywood already writes for.

In 2012, I believe subscription streaming achieved critical mass. The entertainment industry hasn’t been shaken yet, but it is clear that online distribution of video content is going to stick and that the user base represents money that would be foolish to ignore.

But 2013 won’t simply be about the widespread use of streaming television. Something much more interesting will be happening over the next few months: original, high-production value content, available exclusively online. Of primary interest is Netflix, who debuted their drama House of Cards late last year, and who will debut several more this year. Most notable is the un-canceling of cult hit Arrested Development, which will run its fourth season on Netflix, circumventing the hammer that Fox dropped on it seven years ago. These aren’t niche-interest web-series shot on a camcorder and a shoe-string budget. These are studio made television shows starring well-known Hollywood actors. These are “television” shows that have the audacity to never bother airing on television. I think broadcast television’s days are numbered anyway, but if any of these shows are successful, 2013 will be remembered as the beginning of the end.

So that’s my prediciton, but let’s get into the details before parting for the week.

Why online television might stumble:

I say stumble because I don’t believe it will fail, but the medium hasn’t completely “arrived” yet either. The biggest hole for these services is content. Despite having a lot of content, sources such as Netflix and Hulu do not have /all/ of the content, and the sort of television fan who will fill up your wallet is invariably a completionist. This content gap is especially pronounced in film, where many studios, for better or worse, keep their most critically acclaimed items away from content streamers. For many films, consumers are still in the demesne of Hollywood, and might be for a long time still. Similarly, television is often rolled out in stages in the same way films are, with access to content limited for a time, and widespread availability on a streaming service only happening after other outlets have been sufficiently squeezed. This is nothing new, as films have been made available in stages for decades now; first in theaters, then a big broadcast television debut, then availability in rental stores, and then finally television syndication and home video sales. The pattern has only changed to acknowledge new technologies and interests. In some ways, Netflix and its ilk are just 21st century television syndication.

Why online television will inevitably win:

However, even with the best television still a carefully controlled substance, the fight is already won. The analogy here is e-books. The snob didn’t matter. The nice coffee table book or the artful children’s book or whatever pet example you could produce in defense of traditional books didn’t matter. The fact that people “just like” the feel and smell of a real book didn’t matter. There is a sort of person who eats mass market paperbacks like candy. These are the people that keep publishing companies afloat. These are the people who enjoy not having to fill their shelves with cheap books they will never read again. Once these people crossed over to e-books, the revolution was won.

The sort of person who watches all the mass market television – that is, all the television already available online – has gone over to Netflix or Hulu. War’s over.

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