The End of Television As You Know It

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As everybody knows, or is supposed to say in public company: Television is stupid. But nowhere is that truism clearer than this week's Upfronts, where the networks tell advertisers about the shows they're going to debut in September (and cancel in October), and advertisers pay for awkward jokes made at their expense because, like a house cat or Richard Gere in that movie, they got nowhere else to go.

It's a sorry spectacle -- only the latest sign that television no longer makes sense and we're nearing the end of TV shows as we know them.


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The idea of a serialized TV show doesn't make sense any more when you consider the way we consume media, especially compared with music or movies. If you want to listen to a new album, you can download it onto your iPod and computer and listen to it whenever you want. That makes sense. If you want to watch a movie, you can experience it first in a huge high-tech theater filled with excited patrons (my preferred way) and later you can buy or rent it to watch alone. That also makes sense.

Seasons of TV shows like 24 and Lost are a lot like movies or albums because they're unified pieces of story telling. So why should you have to watch one episode (between extended commercial time) and wait exactly 167 hours to watch the next one? It makes more sense to watch them back to back, on Hulu or DVDs, and experience the story as you like, without the interruption of a thousand Viagra commercials or a five-day workweek. But instead we're stuck with Wednesday lineups and we watch Lost like 19th century lit geeks read Herman Melville, waiting with bated breath for the next installment of Moby Dick in next season's issue of Putnam's Quarterly.

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Hulu watchers and Netflixers understand that you shouldn't have to "catch" a show in an hour block, like a bear fishing for quick salmon. You should be able to shop for it like, you know, a human being in a fish market. You pay for the rights a show and when an episode is made it's automatically delivered to your computer or DVR and you watch them all when you want. The unfortunate thing about serialized weekly TV shows like 24 and Lost is that it's better when you don't have to watch them like serialized weekly TV shows.


Michael Hirschorn jump-started this point and he gets an excellent assist today from Gawker arguing that the online migration of television should eventually give birth to an indie movement for TV shows.

More and more Americans are watching more and more video online for longer and longer periods of time, so it stands to reason that sooner or later, someone is going to raise their own money, shoot their own full length show (half hour to an hour long) withoutnetwork interference, put it on the internet, and it will become a cultural phenomenon.

That's exactly right. From the consumers' and artists' perspective, TV makes much more sense as an online product that doesn't have to fit into weekday line-ups. Now how do you make money off that model? I don't know. Ask Nick Denton.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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