A year or so ago. Conan O’Brien, successful late night television host with shows like The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live on his resume, told Charlie Rose that he felt we were now living in TV’s Golden Age. The writing was better than it had ever been, the production values were excellent and the acting superb (special mention: Hugh Laurie as Dr. House). And yet, recent estimates suggest that TV viewership in America is down by more than 2 million this year compared to last. What happened?
Is it a lifestyle change? Is it the effect of TiVo? Is the brilliant writing too brilliant (the old “The viewer is an idiot and this here edjikated stuff ain’t gonna work” argument)? Are concerned parents restricting their kids’ access to TV (I shake my fist at thee, Janet Jackson!)? Is American Idol the last big hurrah before the Apocalypse? Are people so befuddled by the springing forward of Spring Forward that they’re all standing outside their homes in the unexpected extra hour of daylight like bears outside their caves in spring?
These are all questions that have been asked and obsessed over, especially as this news comes slap bang in the middle of sweeps’ month – kicking networks right where it hurts the most: their bank account.
But as a person who spends
too much a lot of time on the internet, I’m surprised at the tiny number of people who’re looking at the effect of downloading. After all, an increasing number of people now choose to view the shows they want online instead of living their lives in thrall to some corporation’s time schedule.
The internet has been striking terror into the hearts of execs everywhere. While people in other industries have had to deal with things like leaked emails, tell-all blogs and hacking, the entertainment business – from books to movies to music to TV – has had an entirely different problem on its hands.
And that big problem is piracy.
Increasing bandwidth and faster connections make it devastatingly simple to download music, photos, documents and movies from the internet. Technically, this is stealing: you’re accessing the creative works of other people without actually paying for it, unless you live in Canada where that’s legal unless you profit from the process. But it feels a lot more grey. (Btw, here’s an interview with aXXo)
For instance, if I download a movie then I’m obviously not paying to watch it. But I do not profit from it either – I’m under no illusion that I own the movie or that I’m entitled to use any of it for commercial purposes and while the average person could probably learn the basics of ripping/uploading media files in half an hour or less, most people will remain end-users.
The law, of course, doesn’t work on feelings. So technically speaking, if I did download that movie for my own use, even if I deleted it after viewing, I’m performing an illegal activity. There are two ways of combating this problem:
One, you can follow the lead of the music industry and punish the end user. This is a singularly stupid option. It’s bad PR, even if you do have right on your side, and big corporations in today’s world don’t need bad PR. I don’t care if you believe all the anti-business folks in the world should be dropped off a cliff with a rock tied to their feet, bad PR is bad PR. There’s also the fact that punishing the end user doesn’t stop the problem: the guy who put that music up in the first place is still going to do it.
End result? You’ve got a whole bunch of people mad at you and nothing’s been solved. The music industry? Slowly catching on as they fix their beady eyes on those who do this all the time (there’s a term for it but I can’t be bothered to find it).
The second option is what a number of TV networks have been trying out: the join ‘em if you can’t beat ‘em method. This idea has possibilities but the networks need to start hiring people clued in to the online scene if they want it to work.
First of all, they need to understand that the days of traditional TV are winding down. I’m sorry, you guys, but we just aren’t the captive audience we used to be in your Grandpa’s time. That said, while some people are deliberately getting off the television bandwagon and prefer to spend their times with bigger and better computers, the majority of people still spend time on their couch with their big screen providing background noise.
Maybe that too will change in time but it’s still a few years away from becoming commonplace. In the meantime TV needs to stop hemming and hawing over whether putting their shows online would “cannibalize” their audience. They still have a chance to get a corner of this market because unlike movies or music, TV is just on the rise.
But if TV wants to compete with BitTorrent sites that offer free downloads and Youtube then it has to look beyond live streaming and iTunes.
Networks love live streaming because the average user can’t save a copy of the file. It’s a way to have your cake and eat it too – something TV is very used to. But it also requires an internet connection that can handle the speed, on websites usually geared for Internet Explorer and all too often comes bundled with software that seeks to ascertain that you’re not pirating stuff.
Personally, that last is the biggest deal breaker for me. I’m not fond of websites that have a preference for IE over all other browsers and while I hate the lack of thought that goes into sites that forget that not everybody is on a superfast connection, the software just skeeves me out. I don’t care how safe and specific that thing is, I’m not about to voluntarily download something that spies on my machine.
Not when I can go to any old site, using my preferred browser and download an avi file that I can keep on my machine for as long as I want without some grubby spyware (legal or no legal) crawling around its innards.
As far as iTunes goes, it’s a good thought but people will always pause to think twice at the idea of having to pay for something that they currently get for free, however much they wish to toe the legal line. Plus one of the main advantages of going online is that you get to create markets where none existed. And not everybody in them might be on the iTunes bandwagon.
Craig Ferguson, for example, has just begun finding his feet in America much less around the world – and yet, thanks to Youtube, he has fans in countries that have never heard the name ‘CBS’.
The consumer really is king. Ad supported downloadable free vids are the way to go, all around. Remember that song, “Video killed the radio star”? If TV doesn’t want to write a corollary to that, then it better see where the audience is headed instead of trying to herd us in like sheep. These here cattle done got fangs.
[Published in a slightly altered form at Blogcritics]