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January 25, 2005

Wait'll TV Real Estate Is Up for Grabs!

Something in a recent Catherine Seipp piece sounded familiar:

Still, there are talented writers working on unsuccessful shows as well as hits. So what goes wrong?

"Promising shows are cancelled immediately if they don't get good numbers," a TV writer friend, who's currently employed on a successful network drama, griped to me when I asked about this, "never getting the chance to find their voice and audience, as Cheers, Hill Street Blues did under [former NBC programming chief] Brandon Tartikoff, largely because he was in last place then and had little to lose. Sadly, these days even a last-place network has itchy trigger fingers, so thick is the fear in the business today."

Back in the feudalistic days of the 1990s, a common complaint among musicians — famous and anonymous alike — was executives' lack of willingness to allow, let alone help, an artist to develop, slowly building an audience and defining a personal style. Instead, the complaint went, to get into the business often required a built-in following, and to stay in the business required the avoidance of sales lulls during periods of artistic experimentation.

Then came the Internet to stir up the business model. From the musician's point of view, the Internet provides a way to build that necessary following and perhaps to circumvent the industry altogether, depending on priorities. From the audience's point of view, the Internet provides a means to explore beyond the big-budget packaging, as well as to circumvent, legally and illegally, the exorbitant prices to acquire the desired material of artists who aren't sufficiently compelling to justify whole album purchases. If artists are going to attract listeners online, in part through free samples, and if fans are going to insist on being persuaded to spend money by the music that the artist makes available, then the need for the various stages of middlemen diminishes.

In light of their differing sales models, the television industry is, if anything, more vulnerable to the technology and ethos of the Internet. The music business requires purchases, tickets, and attendance, requiring physical activity on both sides of the transaction. The television business requires nothing more than continued habitual usage of a living room fixture; revenue comes through advertising or, at most deliberate, through subscription.

Now imagine a world in which the initial viral marketing of South Park had involved URLs, instead of bootleg videos, being passed from dorm room to dorm room.

As somebody who's fiddled with video blogging (vlogging), I'd suggest that the TV folks aren't as immune to the flattening effects of the Internet as they may think. With lower costs for disk space and bandwidth, as well as production software that's mostly already on the market for reasonable prices, as well as the business models developing around blogging, online television shows are probably inevitable. First among amateurs, then malcontents, then mainstream writers et al. frustrated with the business. The threat doesn't end there, though.

Among the most intriguing developments that I've noticed in my five years of editing high-tech market research has been the efforts of such players as Microsoft to get computer content onto the family television set. Whether wireless or through cables, television is only streaming video, after all. Why not use similar technology for various applications, most significantly Web access? The same result is progressing from the other direction, as well, with a desire to make movies and television "clickable" to enhance the content and to open up a channel for related sales. (Like a Desperate Housewive's blouse? Click on her and order one.)

As the technology advances, viewers will be able to watch streaming online content right on the very same televisions that they use for big budget schlock. Furthermore, the big companies may help to transform the feel of television viewing toward that of Web browsing.

This future may — or may not — be distant, but the suits would be well advised to make a cultural asset of their ability to open space for talented people to develop their art now, while that remains only one of the advantages that their money can buy.

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