It’s quite strange to see the TV networks self-destructing alongside the Newspaper industry. The death of the latter is widely accepted as inevitable, while many are still on the fence about the former.
In my opinion, TV is going to become — and is becoming — exactly like radio. In other words, cheaply produced disposable content of no interest ten minutes after it’s broadcast. There’s no TiVo for radio, because no-one wants to timeshift radio — except for NPR (or similar public broadcasters elsewhere), and they give away everything online as podcasts anyway. (And unlike the rest of radio, TV, or newspapers, NPR is gaining market share.)
I started work at the University of Alabama last Monday and discovered that one of the perks of the job is access to free copies of the New York Times (and USA Today, but I’m not sure that’s a perk). Reading the Times is kind of an elitist wank, and being an elitist wanker I tried to actually read a physical copy of the Times for the first time in years. (Pretty much the only time I buy newspapers is when I’m bored out of my skull — e.g. when I was stuck in hospital when my daughter was ill (don’t worry, not serious) a few months back or when I’m flying and run out of interesting stuff to read.)
What immediately struck me is how little the New York Times seems to have learned about being a newspaper, let alone a media outlet. I recently saw an interesting video from TED of a fellow who has actually increased the circulation of several European newspapers by redesigning them — not in the purely graphic sense, but in the Apple sense. Design and function being considered synonymous, rather than the former being merely a thin veneer on the latter. It’s an interesting talk, but so short and lacking in detail that I’m not exactly sure whether I would be terribly impressed by the papers themselves. But, I imagine that they might have considered:
- Abandoning the idiotic broadsheet format (why is it that “good” newspapers must be incredibly inconvenient to unfold and read, unless they’re financial papers?)
- Figuring out a way to put articles on a single page (why do we have short leaders, and then articles vomited across random subsections of different pages?)
- Making the paper actually interesting or attractive to look at
This is all of course a tangent from the more important point that the New York Times needs to redefine itself as a vendor of time-sensitive written articles subsidized by advertising, and not a newspaper. (There was a nice little back of envelope calculation on Twitter a few weeks back — if the New York Times could abandon printing altogether the cost savings would allow it to give a Kindle to every subscriber.)
And all of this is beside my original point that Hulu (and other things like Hulu) is going to kill television. It may not actually become a viable business in the process, but TV is dying. Oddly enough, in its death throes it is going through a Golden Age of creativity, as network programmers thrash about desperately looking for ways of attracting audiences and — belatedly — consider that good, original writing might work.
The quality of TV programs in the United States right now is nothing short of breathtaking. Consider that in the last few years we’ve had:
- The Wire
- Battlestar Galactica
- The Closer
- House M.D.
- Heroes (Season One)
- 30 Rock
- The Office
- Arrested Development
- You Can Call Me Earl
- Scrubs (until about season six)
- Weeds (until season three)
- The Sopranos
- And now Kings
I keep thinking of new shows to add to this list, all produced in the last five years. It’s ridiculous.
There are also-ran TV series made in the last few years (e.g. Life, Saving Grace, or Law & Order: Criminal Intent) that would have qualified for many people’s top ten lists if they hadn’t been facing ridiculous levels of competition. In the last five years, most comedies have — finally — ditched the laugh track, the distinction between “comedy” and “drama” has been removed (including the “drama equals one hour, comedy equals a half hour” rules), “reset to zero” has been discarded: even sitcoms have arc plot — consider that I’ve failed to mention so far such shows as Stargate SG-1, Firefly, Six Feet Under, Lost, and Desperate Housewives. Everybody Loves Raymond — a conventional half-hour laugh track comedy — ranks alongside the best such comedies of yesteryear, and is thoroughly outclassed by innovative shows like Scrubs. Even a pretty-much-ignored show like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is both more coherent and has better production values than any TV action show made five years ago.
And the best way to watch most of this stuff is online via something like hulu or via iTunes. And yet there are so few ads being sold on hulu that most of the ads I see are 15- and 30-second Ad Council back fill. The networks can find four advertisers to annoy us with hopelessly untargeted TiVo-skippable ads on broadcast, cable, and satellite — but allow us to watch a show in high-def on a computer and we get told to switch off lights to save power and speak up about dangerous teen drivers.
In the long run, TV and newspapers are dead. But there’s money to be made before then if they get a clue. In the long run the iPod is dead too, but Apple is doing just fine in the interim.