You can think TV is in terminal decline or that it’s watched by more people, more often, for longer than ever before and you can both be right. Such a dichotomy is representative of the powerful forces for change in an industry where digitization is changing behaviors, business models, consumer expectations and well, everything. Digital disruption is existentially powerful, we can be scared by what Napster did for music, or what Amazon did to retailers, or we can embrace the new opportunities that having a proliferation of screens and pervasive, fast connectivity provides.
Like many things, it used to be simple. Our media channels correlated perfectly to the single specialized device we consumed that media on. Radio programs via radio stations listened to on radios via radio waves. TV shows on TV channels via TV masts. News via newspapers on newsprint, movies and movie theaters, all clearly separated verticals with no possibility for confusion.
Digitization has destroyed that, as all media becomes bits and bytes, the Internet becomes the pipe to all content and devices become converged, the boundaries between music streaming and radio, between digital art and short films and, most importantly, between video and TV have all blurred. What becomes the defining feature of TV vs. Video? Is it the device it’s watched on? The length of the content? The production quality? Or is it the pipe for the data?
I think in an age where Apple commissions TV content to run on Apple music, where Burberry shows premium footage via Smart TV app, where we stream the NFL via Twitter on a phone, or watch news from Hulu in VR, it seems that the delivery mechanism, the device and the content length offer poor guidance in what TV is and isn’t. It seems more likely that TV in the post-digital age is best defined by the content quality. For years the difficulties in production, the cost of distribution meant that professional commissioners would decide what should be created and distributed. They were the arbiters of what was TV.
Now it’s everyone. Content and creativity is democratized, 4K cameras are cheaper than ever, Kickstarter can fuel every dream, Facebook live or SnapChat give everyone a platform. From YouTube celebrities to viral sensations becoming musical stars, it’s no longer 1,000 TV channels, it’s 1.5 billion connected video cameras in pockets, 400 hours of content uploaded to YouTube each second and billions of views per day through social media.
What we have in 2016 is abundance in all directions. We have more screens, in more places, than ever. We have devices like mobiles creating ever more incremental media moments in life, the mindless swiping in the elevator, the illegal snatched glance at a red light, the subway commute. More screens, more moments, it’s a pie that’s growing and this best describes the vast opportunity for everyone in TV. The challenge is how we can make better content, how we can aid the discovery and sharing of the content and how we will make more money and in better ways.
We’re in a status quo before a paradigm shift. We’re at peak complexity, we have a legacy system of set-top boxes with small incremental changes built around the edges. I now need to select my remote before I decide what show to watch. I need to remember the 13 perfect button presses to watch Jon Oliver on demand. We have SVOD, AVOD, streaming, stored content, broadcast — it’s messy. Terrified of the value destruction first seen in music, retailing and aggregation portals, it’s easy to see why the TV industry is slow to change. Why would they? Yet, we have huge mounting tensions building, we have skinny bundles, OTT, Twitter on the Apple TV, rising levels of privacy — all chipping away — but none delivering the final blow to consumers who are increasingly frustrated being spoiled by the simplicity of a Google search bar or access to everything in one place via Spotify.
TV will one day all be digital. In a world of 5G, set top boxes could fade to the smartphone as a hub. VR content can be made and streamed in real time. Micropayments could take off. Geography will become meaningless. The notion of broadcast vs. streaming will be a false choice. We need to embrace that reality now. All these changes allow more money to be made from more people, more often and in new ways. Everything from rights negotiations, to content format, to payment systems and business models need to be assessed with a future focused lens.
Technology is not a threat, new media doesn’t replace the old, it just gives a new framework to pull it through and creates more places for it to appear. First, it replicates old models in new ways but then it transforms them.
And it is this transformation that makes TV the best place to be right now. Everyone should be thinking about how TV content can mean new things: No longer beholden to ad breaks, shows can be of any length, shows can be interactive, shows can cross screens, shows can be rich immersive storytelling in VR. We need more games-design thinking and less moving image. TV content can be shared in new ways, socially discovered. But how do we replicate the water-cooler moments of the TV of the past? How do we embrace social networks as the distribution network of the future and not be scared of the attention they steal?
This is TV’s moment, it’s time to embrace the change. Quality content has never been more in demand, we have never had more moments to watch it, there has never been a bigger audience. It’s time to look forward to a future where TV content is unleashed from the box that is TV.