Less TV? Go ahead. Make my day.
The other day Glenn Britt, the chief executive of Time Warner Cable, got on the wrong side of history. He stuck with the television networks. On Monday he spoke out against Dish Network’s “Auto Hop,” which allows viewers to avoid the lifeblood of the TV ecosystem: ads. As Brian Stelter of the New York Times reported (emphasis added):
Mr. Britt said that if such ad-skipping became more prevalent, the reduction in ad revenue would be made up through higher subscriber fees or a lower total amount of production of television.
It got me to thinking. Maybe scaling back should be a promise instead of a threat. Television doesn’t serve social and cultural needs as it did generations ago, but what we get from it should be much better. And we already know how it can be, from the Web- and cable-savvy people disrupting a medium that disrupted everything.
When I was a kid I had access to seven TV channels – which was a lot and thanks to my living in New York City. Most places had at most three: network affiliates of CBS, NBC and ABC. Some places in the United States could pull in only one of them. And – horrors! – they actually went off the air for a few hours every day at around 2 a.m.
Now, we have a 500-channel universe. We have access to hundreds of programs, 24 hours a day, and yet there are no more memorable programs produced these days than in the Golden Age (and some may argue, even fewer). By cutting back on the pursuit of infinite programming, creative people can again do creative things, when the muse hits. TV should be more like the theater: It happens when it happens for as long as it happens.
First, let’s dispense with the fiction that disrupting the business model always destroys the business. We’ve heard all this before, and it’s always been wrong. TiVo didn’t kill TV. VHS didn’t kill Hollywood. Since the advent of DVRs there is more TV programming than ever, and anyone who still thinks that VCRs, DVD players and even torrents have killed Hollywood need only look at the numbers for The Avengers – which will only be multiplied once it goes from theaters to Blu-ray players.
Of course, the relentless pursuit of 24/7 programming for hundreds of channels increases the chance that something worth watching will be produced. Fire a shotgun, and chances are you’ll hit something. But in the last two decades it has been non-broadcast networks, whose business models have previously depended on curating second-run content, that have brought us original programming that is actually in the best tradition of television: AMC’s Mad Men and The Walking Dead; HBO’s The Sopranos and Game of Thrones.
These alternative networks don’t waste their time trying to fill 21 hours a week. They win by cultivating great work, one hour at a time, while immersing us in the best of the past until there is something new and worthy to share. They break other rules, too. Mad Men and The Sopranos went off the air for well over a year during creative hiatuses and contract disputes, and the audience came back to make them commercial and creative successes.
Need more evidence that this is a new era? Uber-disruptor Netflix, which made its name distributing DVDs and then streaming movies, now emphasizes old TV shows and original content. Hulu, a consortium of most of the networks, is a good-enough, time-shifting service that includes few ads and offers original shows of its own. TiVo’s elegant controls make recording programs, and racing through the ads, virtually idiot-proof.
There was a time that TV filled a void. It was a permanent night-light, a babysitter. It democratized entertainment and news distribution in the safety of your own home. But the parade has passed. Video is omnipresent, but it needn’t be always on, and always new. So the traditional networks need to go full circle. Call it the “HBO Principle”: Go big on movies and quality reality shows, and sprinkle in spectacular original programming. Do exactly what lower ad revenue would require you to do, but do it on your own terms.
CableSat companies can act as handmaidens to their network partners for only so long. They quibble and quarrel on retransmission fees, but their interests have traditionally been aligned. Tech, and a greater number of choices, are changing the dynamic. We’ve already seen cracks in the old allegiances with the rollout by all the major cable companies of tablet and smartphone apps that not only drive a bigger wedge between viewers and networks but also call into question the relevance of the TV set itself.
Dish, with its ad hopper, is only doing what’s good for business by siding with customers. But this occurs at a time when television’s monopoly as a ubiquitous, free medium is a laughable, fading memory. The Living Room War, described by New Yorker TV critic Michael Arlen 30 years ago, was about intramural fighting for control of a medium that had a lock on the living room. Now the living room war is about everything that competes with TV for our attention. That includes TV-like alternatives such as YouTube, on-demand services from Apple and Amazon, and gaming systems.
Neil Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that the invention of the telegraph made it necessary to use the telegraph, all the time, and that this unfortunate compulsion had infected TV as well. This wasn’t good for culture, he argued, only for business. So the best thing – for us – is to let nature take its course on the networks. We aren’t a captive audience anymore. If technology empowers us to avoid the vegetables that are ads, and that means less of the dessert that is Hollywood programming, let’s just see if that isn’t a great thing. Go ahead, Mr. Britt. We’re calling your bluff.