A Few Caveats About The New World Of Television
Sunday night's Golden Globes honored television that feels different from what we had before in both content and business model. High honors went to, among others, House Of Cards, a Netflix drama starring an established movie actor; Transparent, an Amazon comedy-drama about a transgender woman with adult children; and Jane The Virgin, an offbeat CW show embracing the telenovela format and featuring a marvelous young lead who is also a woman of color. In recent weeks and months, Amazon has unveiled a new streaming device and we've learned about initiatives to provide HBO and ESPN, among others, without cable. Networks are publicly swearing off overnight ratings and Nielsen is working to broaden its measurement of viewers. Cord-cutting – going without cable entirely – isn't yet the norm, but it's on the rise, and it's no longer something only early adopters and television agnostics would consider.
It's fun to talk about change. It's fun to talk about delivery methods and new players and new gizmos, and it's definitely fun to talk about lowering or eliminating your cable bill. But there are a few important things to keep in mind.
1. This is not the first time the delivery system for television content has changed. When they unveiled the new package that would provide ESPN to the same television you have now, only through a set-top box instead of a cable box, there were reactions suggesting that this – THIS! – was the beginning of the end of television. Of course, we've already gone through a change from the antenna to the cable, the air to the cord, and it didn't kill television. It just changed the way you get fundamentally the same stuff. The idea that television, the fundamental thing that is television, means cable boxes and cable bills is very much a function of a particular and limited historical perspective. Changing the delivery system itself does not necessarily change the nature of the thing.
2. This is not the first time new players have entered the arena of making programming. Yes, it's cool that Amazon and Netflix and XBox and DirecTV and other people who come at television with a different set of incentives from broadcast, basic cable, and premium cable networks. But so far, they're boutique providers of content that's structured very similarly to cable content.
3. There is a LOT about the economics of these new providers that we just don't know. Right now, Netflix and Amazon in particular are making attention-getting, interesting shows in part because they need to establish credibility and become players. That's all they need these shows to do right now. But they're very cagey about what the viewership actually is and what it needs to be for the shows to be self-supporting. It's fascinating to watch the development of these totally weird models where Amazon gives you award-winning TV in a package with free two-day toothpaste delivery and Netflix gives you award-winning TV with a monthly subscription to stream a bunch of other stuff, but nobody really knows yet how these models are going to work in anything resembling a long term. And when you don't know exactly how the economics are going to shake out, you don't know exactly what the economic incentives are going to be, and when you don't know that, you really don't know what anybody is going to do after tomorrow.
4. For many, many people, your cable company is your broadband internet provider. Lowering your cable bill does you very little good if your broadband bill goes up. Netflix – the limited thing that is Netflix, which does not currently provide any live anything – was estimated in November to use 35 percent of all peak-period North American downstream internet traffic. How much do you suppose ESPN will use if broadband ESPN is widely adopted? How about ESPN plus everything else everyone watches on cable? It's going to be a lot, and it's dangerous and optimistic to assume that's going to happen at no cost, which is what people are doing when they compare their current costs with the costs they would have in a future where all television was available on streaming and broadband remained the same price. It is reasonable to assume that since cable companies and internet companies are the same companies, they have given thought to where they might make up the revenue lost in cable subscriptions, particularly since in quite a few cases, the cable company is the internet company and also the content-making company (as with Comcast/NBC).
5. Cord-cutting remains a practice with economic implications. Unless you want to watch on a laptop and you have a laptop, watching most of these services on a TV involves buying a streaming device for every television on which you'd like to be able to watch your shows. And if you watch a lot of television, once you add up all these services and outfit yourself with the right devices to watch them, you're talking about an outlay that's not necessarily a great boon to people who currently subscribe to little more than basic cable.
6. There's great enthusiasm among a lot of consumers for "a la carte" television subscriptions, where you subscribe to only the channels you really watch. Right now, there are big channels that subsidize the continuing existence of little channels that few people care about. But keep in mind: some of those little channels serve people who speak languages besides English or have very specialized interests, and it may be that some of those subsidies are ones you or someone you like would be sad to lose.
7. Some of the most interesting actual progress going on in television right now as far as representation of people who have rarely seen folks like them on TV is happening on plain old broadcast television, where Shonda Rhimes has helped demonstrate that diversity on screen and off can be not only good TV but also good business – as Fox learned when its hip-hop-inflected family drama Empire debuted last week to great numbers. Large swaths of premium cable, on the other hand – much more of a "pay for quality and thoughtfulness" model, in theory – have done an absolutely dismal job with diversity for many years. The idea that the more boutique, premium, prestigious, or expensive a piece of programming is, the more likely it is to evade the weaknesses of the traditional entertainment market economy and feel fresh and vibrant is true in some ways but entirely false in others.
8. An anecdote: Yesterday, I happened to be cleaning my house while watching an old season of Survivor via streaming, through a device attached to my TV. It worked in a way I would describe as "pretty well." But at times, it buffered, stopped, choked, and spit out messages that my internet was too slow. Now, I pay for high-speed internet, and it's fine usually, but as anyone who streams video knows, it can be very mysterious why, at times, it magically doesn't work. Cable goes out too, yes. But the persnickety nature of broadband streaming remains a major obstacle to switching to streaming entirely, at least for people like me who have watched enough frozen screens and spinning logos for a lifetime.
9. A ton of people still watch television on a television, with a cable box, when it's on. A ton of television is still watched this way, every day. And it's not just sports, it's ... television. It's The Big Bang Theory and American Idol and Flash and How To Get Away With Murder. We do not live yet in a "Oh, Television? Do People Still Have Those?" universe. Lots of people are getting by without tablets and Rokus, turning on shows when they're on because they're on. Maybe that will eventually be a weird behavior, but for the moment, it's entirely standard. Whatever's coming, it's a mistake to talk about the world as if it's already here.
None of this is to rain on the revolution parade. There are certainly a lot of interesting things happening, and there's no question that he landscape in five years or even two years will look very different from now. But there's just a lot that remains unclear, and there are a lot of questions that will need answering before we know what that new landscape will look like.
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