Content March 2008

The Revolution Will Be Televised

TV can avoid the music industry’s fate and survive the digital age, but only by beating the Internet at its own game.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

One of the most exhausting things about new-media Moonies is their cultish conviction: either you “get it” or you don’t. But they’re right, up to a point. It’s like when you’re finding your way around a strange city: you have to see the whole thing in its full conceptual clarity before you can even begin to understand the particulars. The classic case study is how Steve Jobs shanghaied and basically destroyed the CD business. The major record labels, in giving Apple’s iTunes the right to sell individual songs for 99 cents each, undermined their own business model—selling bundles of songs gathered together into something called an “album” for up to $20 a pop—because they didn’t see that people were about to consume music in an entirely new way. The labels saw iTunes as free money; “ancillary,” in the legal vernacular. Jobs took their cheap music and used it as a loss leader to sell his expensive iPods, and the traditional music business now lies in tatters.

Since I work in the traditional TV business, I’d been resolutely not seeing how the exact same thing is happening to video. Certainly, I’d been following the rise of Web-based video services like YouTube, Joost, and Hulu (the latter two being, to different degrees, Big Media–funded attempts to create satisfying experiences roughly analogous to watching TV, except on the Web). More recently, Miro, a nonprofit, launched a high-definition Web channel. And iTunes went video as well, offering a mix of professionally produced video and video podcasts from amateurs and quasi-amateurs. Like the record labels before them, TV networks and studios licensed some of their content to Apple, allowing iTunes to sell shows and movies with the same one-price strategy it had applied to music ($1.99 for TV shows; $9.99 for movies). The video iPod, competing with video-enabled cell phones and other viewing devices, allowed visual content to go mobile as well, auguring a period of video everywhere, immediately, all the time. All of this seemed like peripheral noise, digital noodling, because it was obvious: people love TV. They’ll never stop watching TV. YouTube is popular, but doesn’t count because it’s not really TV: it’s short-form crap. Produced TV is shinier, more pleasingly narrative. These are eternal values.

A recent visit to Houston, though, convinced me that I just hadn’t been getting it. My friend Mike and his wife had done away with their TV entirely and instead had set up their 20-inch iMac wide-screen as the focal point of a kind of jerry-rigged home theater; with no grievous loss in quality, they were feeding it with content from iTunes, various other Web-based media services, and DVDs. In doing so, they had dispensed with those hefty cable bills and had asserted an icono­clastic form of control over their media lives. It turns out, anecdotally at least, that lots of other people are doing the same. And that was my Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moment. Video without a TV console was not only possible, it was likely.

The traditional TV-viewing experience doesn’t have to die (for reasons I’ll get into later), but to save it, the media-industrial complex will have to act in nontraditional and uncomfortable ways—and will also have to rethink what “TV” is. Currently, it means watching a professionally produced video program—passively—on a television console that is fed with content delivered as part of a subscription to a cable or digital service. In the future, TV will mean a cacophony of professional and amateur short- and long-form content shipped via a variety of platforms to a variety of devices, only one of which is the Sony Bravia taking up too much space in your living room. Then, that content will be edited, poked at, commented on, parodied, and rebroadcast by you the former viewer—now “user”—to whomever you choose. Who gets paid by whom to deliver what to whom in this new dispensation is, as in every moment of grand tectonic digital shift, the $60 billion question.

And it’s far from obvious that the people being paid now will be the people being paid a few years from now. The post–World War II model of expensive video driving a massively profitable content-production industry (that now-legendary $10 million pilot for Lost, those $200 million movies) is in some peril—much as, for the first time, it is conceivable that one or more of the major record labels could go out of business entirely. Among many other matters, the writers’ strike (still ongoing at press time, possibly to be followed by an actors’ strike this summer) is a final, great battle royal over content profits at what might be the last moment when such profits are worth fighting over—like steel workers’ strikes in the ’80s.

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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