The Continuing End of TV

Tossed TVsI’m sitting in a medical office (routine stuff) where a number of people, myself included, are doing our best to ignore the flat TV screen on the wall. Most of us are reading magazines, using our phones or tablets, or (in one case — mine) working on a laptop.

When I arrived around 8am, I found the flat screen interesting, because it was showing a radio show I like: Dennis & Callahan, of WEEI. While most sports talk shows sound like human beer cans yelling at each other, D&C is always thoughtful and informative, even (or especially) when it veers off the sports groove, as it often does. I’d never seen John Dennis or Gerry Callahan before, so it was interesting to see them at work. I also like their long 8am conversation with Boomer Esiason every Monday during the NFL season. So digging all that was cool. Then, at 9am, when the show ended, the first of a series of half-hour-long ads began to run. Says here on the NESN schedule page that “paid programming” will continue until noon. Nobody in the room is watching. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of them find the non-stop pitches annoying.

NESN is the New England Sports Network. I’d never seen it before, except maybe in a bar or another place like this one. Nothing I’ve seen so far this morning would make me want to see it again. (I’m still in the Waiting Room, waiting.) While it was nice seeing D&C, I don’t need a TV for that. And, while “paid programming” fills the time between D&C and sports news later in the day, it’s otherwise one big value-subtract for everybody but the station and the advertiser (and, I suppose the people who buy the crap being advertised — currently some kind of electronic “Amish fireplace.”). But then, so might be pretty much everything else on TV that isn’t news or sports you can’t get anywhere else.

That’s being unfair, of course. There is plenty of worthwhile stuff on TV. Talent shows. Sit-coms. Dramas and comedies. Even some reality shows. (I know people who love “Dancing With the Stars.”) My point is that none of it needs to be on TV, because today TV = Cable, and only Cable needs Cable. What we call “channels” and “networks” are just sources of programs, most of which are just files or streams that can be stored as files. We have the Net for that now.

Programs should be made available to pay for and watch on an a la carte basis, or as part of subscription packages that make sense to viewers. Apple does some of that, but most of the programs are too expensive at this point.

Sure, NBC, ABC, TNT, AMC and the rest of them have “brands” as sources of programs. But why should they be stuffed inside so much packing material, like D&C gets stuffed between “paid programming” nobody watches? Why not buy what’s worth more than $zero at prices that also exceed $zero, without also buying all the pure crap that serves as filler?

Mostly because the flywheels of Business As Usual in TV are enormous, and are sustained by FCC regulations for over-the-air, Cable and Satellite (a variety of Cable) that remain anchored in the nearly-vanished Antenna Age. (Speaking of which, there is an excellent exhibition called TV in the Antenna Age, in Terminal 3 at SFO. Check it out if you’re flying United in or out of there.)

Conveniently, all Cable companies offer Internet service as well. TV on the Net they call “over the top.” But in the long run, “over the top” will be the whole thing. The writing is already on the wall. Progress toward the inevitable is slow, but we can see how it ends. What used to be TV will just be files and streams, some of which we’ll pay for, and some of which will be free. Meanwhile, more of the usual crap will just be ignored.

[Later…] Brett (below) makes a good point about the high efficiency of broadcast (cable) for streaming. I should add that cable broadcast as a way of delivering video will make sense for a long time. But the business and technical model as it stands is obsolete and out of alignment with the marketplace. “TV” will become as obsolete as telegraphy. Video will never be.

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14 Responses to The Continuing End of TV

  1. Brett Glass says:

    Individual streaming will never match the efficiency of broadcast TV, ever. It will therefore be more expensive once pricing shakes itself out.

  2. Doc Searls says:

    Good point, Brett. I added a bit, toward that point, to the post above.

  3. Mike Warot says:

    It costs less than $0.25/hour to run a Windows Media server up on amazon’s cloud, capable of serving hundreds of clients simultaneously. The bandwidth required to do a live broadcast from anywhere to that server is just 1x the bandwidth of the stream…. and your quarter/hour gets you a force multiplier that can’t be beat.

    Live streaming is almost trivial to set up… and torrents handle the non-streaming needs just dandy if you’re not worried about DRM, etc.

    If they manage to kill the internet, we’ll all be swapping files on SD cards, etc… and live streaming will cease to exist in all but the most strictly controlled manner. Nobody will watch that kind of dreck, so it too will die.

    Meanwhile we’ll be quietly sharing our stuff and ignoring government enforced attempts to make computers into the opposite of the copying machines they are.

  4. Geoff says:

    Weird, I was hanging out in the A&E waiting room for a few hours yesterday (broke a finger falling down the stairs). The TV/monitor their was just showing plain text, warning about not geting into strangers cars and how to avoid muggings. Out of the 40 of us waiting there, there was 1 kindle and a few playing with their phones.

  5. elliot noss says:

    while I am not sure you mean to, do not underestimate the value of the “Antennae Age”.

    having just cancelled a $140/mo. cable habit for a combination of OTA and apple TV I can tell you that an antenna provides a great baseline to build around FOR FREE. it also has all the efficiency (more in fact) than brett is referring to above.

    I think we will see a return to the Antennae Age, just with a different purpose and combination around it.

    also, quitting that cable habit was like quitting smoking with NO withdrawal! what took me so long?

  6. Doc Searls says:

    Hey, Elliot.

    What do you do for sports that aren’t over the air or on AppleTV? (Serious question. I have no idea.)

    The problem with the antenna option is that there isn’t much left there, and it’s too hard to get in too many places.

    Here in Boston I can watch games that are on the air, but not ones that are only on cable. Most NFL games, including the Patriots’, are over the air. So I was able to see the Pats beat the Eagles on Sunday. But the Celtics are only on CSN while the Red Sox and Bruins are only on NESN. To get those I’ll need to subscribe to cable.

    I would pay to see them on an a la carte basis. I might even be willing to see the Celtics on a season subscription basis. I pay SiriusXM to hear pretty much any team play over satellite radio, most of which I listen to on my phone or iPad. In fact, I think SiriusXM should get into the a la carte sports video delivery business.

    As for reception, now that the signals are all-digital, reception is mixed at best without clear line-of-sight to the transmitter, or with a roof antenna that almost nobody bothers putting up any more. And even then it might not work. Here in Boston we need a directional antenna we put in a window in order to get good over-the air reception, and we have line-of-sight (through trees) to the transmitters in Needham. In Santa Barbara our rotating rooftop antenna used to get every analog VHF and UHF station, from Los Angeles to San Diego, with a nice clear picture. Now we only get San Diego, and then only about 5% of the time. Our local station, which used to be on VHF channel 3, came in fine with rabbit ears before it went digital on UHF channel 27. Now even our top-of-the-line UHF antenna on the roof can’t get it, because terrain shadowing trashes the signal. At a friend’s apartment on Roosevelt Island in New York recently I was able to get every station’s signal just fine if I put my EyeTV Hybrid‘s antenna up against the window on the west side, where it could see the top of the Empire State Building. But in the guest bedroom on the north side I got nothing. Signal strengths looked good, but signal quality was too low. Hence, a blank screen.

    As for AppleTV, we looked at it last week in Santa Barbara as a replacement for the Dish Network system we have there (and need to keep because guests want their sports and Jersey Shore episodes). It has a nice user interface, and it’s fine that they sell “House” episodes, but at $2.99 each I’ll pass.

    All that said, I still think over the air is a good way to deliver data. Just not only the data that’s being delivered right now.

  7. Doc,

    A few weeks ago, I wrote about the continuing move of TV to the net and some of the challenges it faces ( see here: ).

    I suspect the future will be about packaging certain offerings for a price (my assumption was about $7.50 per channel). A more complex option would be a metering system that would pay micro-amounts based on viewership.

    But right now, a lot of TV is based on largely inefficient models. That inefficiency creates a lot of extra dollars for the TV station owners so I’m not sure they would be too thrilled to move to a net based model. If you assume that somewhere around 20-30 percent of TV ads fail to reach customers (and it’s probably even higher, I’m just being conservative), that’s revenue that a highly optimized streams-only world would create and it would translate in an equivalent loss of 20-30 percent of revenue to TV station owners.

    We’ve seen that issue before with music (free MP3s or cheap iTunes/Amazon/etc songs), land lines (cheap VOIP or Skype), classifieds (replaced by craigslist) and general advertising.

    I agree with you that it’s only a question of time before TV suffers the same fate but I suspect it’s more of a generational shift than something that will happen any time soon..

  8. Dan says:

    Ever heard of a DVR with a play list? That aside, I don’t know why so many people repeat the tired line that cable is responsible for packaged programming and the high cost of pay TV. The fact of life of Pay TV is that content providers drive everything. Cable and the like service providers are forced to pay billions ever year for content packages that includes both hits and crap. The high cost of content is because it is expensive to produce hit programming and the % of winners over losers is small. The programming cost of all the losers is bundled with the winners and passed on to the service providers and ultimately to the consumer. There is no way this model will change as long as the content providers are making this kind of money. Currently the ala Carte model cannot produce the same amount of revenue for the content providers or they would have been all over it. There are options to cable, you can buy movies and past episodes of TV either by DVD or streamed over (take your pick) alternate “Amazon and Netflix like” providers. Commercial free live programming is not available though and many sports programs are only on PayTV. The downside to ala carte is that it is not aggregated and you may have to rely on independent services that are not as stable as large service providers. So content is king and drives most of the cost of PayTV. Even Netflix has struggle recently due to content cost. They did not renew their Starz contract due to the high cost and along with their plant expansion cost in Europe and South America and increased content cost; their financials are under performing. Their pricing plan became more expensive to pay for the above and their price sensitive subscribers canceled in large numbers. Netflix stock price suffered and has dropped from 300 to the mid 60’s in less than six months. In theory it sounds good to proclaim ala Carte streaming will be future, and it may be one day, but the economics of programming content will need to change first.

  9. Jocuri Noi says:

    My opinion about TV regardless of the diagonal pattern or form … is that no matter what channel change not only find about crime, natural disasters, in a word only bad news, immorality within. This is one of the highest goals set: to fool people.

  10. Pingback: Marc's Voice » Beginning of Dec. ’11 blogging

  11. Patrick says:

    Without question the best line in this is the one that we can apply to a great deal of what challenges society right now-be it tv, climate, food, politics above all- “the flywheels of Business As Usual ( in TV ) are enormous” How to turn the little flywheels of better than business as usual- you know without the toxic aspects- is way more of interest and import than what those guys on the big axles are doing or thinking. They’ll come around as soon as some little wheels are taking their business. Reinventing everything to that it works for all is what we are just at the beginning of right now. Thanks for my latest most favorite useful visualization Doc!

  12. Doc Searls says:

    Jocuri, I agree, but I think it’s even worse than that.

    Most of what’s on TV is filler, much of which either has no value or a negative kind.

    When I was in Italy last summer I watched some of the TV in hotels there and saw exactly the same kind of cavity-producing eye-candy that we see here in the U.S.

  13. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Patrick.

    Hey, let’s have lunch or something when I’m back in SB in early January.

  14. Doc Searls says:

    Good point, Dan.

    I have friends in the cable business who explain the shake-down operations of both the content providers from Hollywood and the value-free TV stations (such as those that put on ancient re-runs and “pre-paid programming”) that exist only to extract payments from cable systems for the right to carry signals that the FCC’s “must carry” rules require. (That is, if an over-the-air TV signal can be seen in a cable company’s service area, the cable company is required to carry it. Hence, make easy money by putting a crap TV station on the air and making cable companies pay to carry it.)

    The problem now, in respect to Comcast especially, is that the old broken system is vertically integrated, from content source right through the cable sluice.

    But at some point cord-cutting will force the whole business to reform. Whether that’s by going a la carte or by coming up with some other sensible system, the difference will be large, because the demand will have changed enough to require it.

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