It’s the end of the (TV) world as we know it, and I feel fine

For ten years, I’ve been saying to friends and anyone else who is sufficiently immune to boredom that network TV was headed the way of commercial radio, and predicting it would be all over in five years. I was obviously at least five years ahead of myself. The proverbial fat lady hasn’t sung, but I believe that the television writers’ strike will be looked back on as marking the beginning of the end, a watershed moment.

Network (and indeed “standard cable”) television is dead to me, and I suspect many others. At its last gasp, it produced some of its best work ever — amazingly original television shows like Lost (season one, at least), and brilliantly executed retreads of old concepts such as Monk and Battlestar Galactica. Many television critics observed that television was entering a golden era, just as its audience began to disappear. And probably for just that reason. As network executives flailed about trying to figure out how to get ratings, it must have occurred to some that perhaps actual good writing might do the trick, and for a remarkable number of shows, it did.

But, just as a gas flame burns brightest when its supply is cut off, television has flamed out. The brilliant new shows have exploded as their hail mary concepts have been forced back into the tired “it must last five seasons of twenty-two episodes” formulae, and the writers and producers have leapt at each others’ throats in some kind of insane suicide pact. It’s worth noting that two of the best recent shows — Lost and Galactica — both nearly lost it with padded episodes intended to stretch their arcs to five seasons, but then made mid-course corrections and then cut their arcs to four seasons.

The underlying problem is completely obvious and perfectly analogous to the music downloading issue.

First of all, people want to watch good shows, and they prefer not to see ad breaks. They’re actually quite happy to pay for the shows without the ads — witness the huge numbers of TV shows selling on DVD. And they’re going to turn out to be quite happy to see “TV” shows which never get shown on TV (or perhaps only appear on TV as reruns — the way movies do).

Second, commercial television is an extremely inefficient mechanism for delivering content that people want to the people who want the content, just as it is an extremely inefficient mechanism for delivering relevant ads. Guess what? The exact same issues apply to commercial radio, radio advertising, and music. Premium cable is even worse, incidentally. It’s cheaper and more satisfying to watch the Sopranos, say, all at once on DVD than be strung out waiting for it to show in installments as HBO tries to tease out subscriptions.

How is this playing out?

Well, folks are buying the stuff they want direct from the source (or, as direct as they can), and ignoring the middleman. In this case it means buying movies and TV shows on DVD or from iTunes and ignoring commercial TV … in ever greater numbers. And the writers’/producers’ mutually assured destruction is just hastening the end.

Futurama has just gotten a new “season” purely driven by DVD sales.

I’m surprised that Stargate SG-1 didn’t continue as a pure DVD/iTunes venture, but I suspect that was more a consequence of writers’ fatigue than economics. Don’t be surprised if, say, Firefly comes back as a DVD/download-first, see it repeated on TV later, production. The economics aren’t incredibly difficult to calculate. Suppose that a studio gets 50% of iTunes sales, a show like LOST might cost $3M per episode to make and (currently) only make $250,000 from iTunes sales alone. But imagine if LOST were produced a bit leaner (e.g. it were made in Canada or Australia), had a rabid fanbase (OK, that doesn’t stretch your imagination much), and were coming out on iTunes exclusively one week before it was shown on TV.

This is speculation, but it seems pretty inevitable to me.

I’m currently watching seasons one to three of The Wire on DVD. This is a brilliant show that could never be shown on US commercial TV, doesn’t fit the network formats at all (1h episodes, profanity, nudity, violence, and 12 episodes per season).

The commercial television networks don’t have a big fork in their asses just yet, but their asses are probably tingling in anticipation.