Back in the day, watching TV was a simple two-step process:
- Step 1: Turn on TV.
- Step 2: Sit back and let your mind go blank.
To further ensure simplicity, there were only three network channels, one of which apparently showed only I Love Lucy.
Then everything changed. Cable and satellite TV emerged, then expanded to hundreds, now thousands, of channels. Internet and network providers really kicked things into gear. Cellphones made it even crazier. Throw in Netflix, Xbox and PlayStation 3 streaming, along with Roku, Amazon Video on Demand, Apple TV, Blockbuster MediaPoint, Vudu, Zvbox, Boxee, and XStreamHD, and it's just plain nuts. Watching TV got complicated, and everyone, particularly the networks, scrambled to keep up.
Keep reading to see why TV is struggling while we just sit back and watch.
In the titanic battle for eyeballs, networks developed ways to get their programs to viewers outside of their traditional TV affiliates. TV shows started appearing on network websites and elsewhere. For example, NBC and Fox favorites are available on Hulu, along with some CBS content, and Disney/ABC is on the way. (Disclosure: DVICE is owned by NBC Universal.)
True story: I've spent many a lunch hour at my desktop catching a show I missed the night before. But it seems that's all good for the networks. The more ways to watch their silly shows (and commercials), the better. And who knows — if the online stuff hooks me, I might make the effort to actually tune in for the broadcast showing next week. Or not, since I know it's available online whenever I want it.
How Do I Watch TV? Let Me Count the Ways
The number of options for watching TV are probably already beyond calculation. The pie slice labeled "Live Broadcast" is shrinking faster than Bulgaria's economy. It's all about time-shifting now, not to mention place-shifting. TV shows can be viewed on your cellphone, iPod, and most easily, your computer.
Of course, this leads cable companies to deep brooding. Many cable operators are also Internet service providers. Time Warner and Comcast, for example, are big double dippers. They can't be overjoyed to see that people are turning away from watching TV, and even worse, burning valuable Internet bandwidth to watch TV online. It's a vicious cycle — as more shows are available online, mostly for free, viewers are pulled away from broadcast/cable options, so prices from cable ops rise, forcing more people online. In fact, it's now a viable option for a TV addict to ditch their cable service and just pay for fast Internet access.
As we've seen, cable ops are trying to cap bandwidth to limit people from doing that on the cheap. Would these caps make consumers think twice before they view a show online? I know I make my TiVo recording options based on what I know I can watch the next day online. If I have to pay for that luxury because of increased bandwidth fees, I might change my viewing habits. At the very least I might upgrade to a TiVo with dual-recording capabilities so I can record more and watch online less.
Time Warner, already strongly pushing for a bandwidth cap, is also working on a new business model in limited markets. Customers who pay for HBO can log onto their computers and watch shows like Big Love and Entourage. Talk about double dipping. You're an HBO customer, and Time Warner will also charge you more if you use more bandwidth to watch their shows. Nice.
Many of the other cable and satellite companies are looking at similar options. Subscriber-only online TV might be the way to make a profit when everyone else is giving it away for free online. AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV and Verizon are talking to Viacom (MTV, VH1, Comedy Central) and Scripps Network (HGTV, the Food Network), the BBC and Discovery to offer online viewing of their shows, but only to paid subscribers.
Channeling the Future
So where does this leave traditional TV? Frankly, no one, least of all the networks, has a clue, partly because they're just too vested in the old broadcast model. For now, it seems, advertisers just aren't willing to back online shows the way they back traditional broadcasting.
There's some logic to that. Most people still watch TV on a TV. But they're also increasingly watching TV on a PC. Soon, href="http://dvice.com/archives/2009/04/shift-networkin.php">When all TVs are connected to the Web, the very nature of the medium will shift. Think of it: programming from YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and all the rest — even torrents — all streamed to your set in glorious high-def. What's "broadcast" again?