The future of television

By Tommy Morgan Jr.

“Like the Ottoman Empire, the music industry, and Zima, we’re here to stay.” — captain Hammer on television’s continued relevance.

During Sunday night’s Emmy broadcast, featuring host Neil Patrick Harris — who, at the beginning of the show, lauded television’s importance in our lives — accurately described what is happening to television.

Quite simply, the Internet is taking over, making television increasingly irrelevant much like its seemingly doomed sister — the print newspaper. Though it’s as true as the video points out, there are several characteristics about the Internet that continue to make it lack the importance and popularity of its counterpart, it continues to gain relevance and traditional television fades.
For one, there are commercials. During your average one hour broadcast of a show on television, there are 14 minutes of commercials. Compared with even legal Internet sites, such as Hulu.com, this almost seems laughable. What would you rather do: Watch a 46-minute program with five commercial breaks consisting of 14 minutes of commercials in between parts or watch that same broadcast with five commercial breaks that last only 30 seconds each? Fourteen minutes, or two and a half? The answer seems obvious, especially when you factor in things such as availability. I’ll take those two and a half minutes of commercials and the ability to watch the show anytime I want any day, as opposed to more than five times that many commercials during a one-shot attempt at viewing the program.
Also, there is the issue of quality. This has two separate parts — the quality of the viewing experience, and the quality of the program. First, viewing experience. Yes, with the Internet there is the problem of loading time, as well as quality viewing being derailed by slow and low-quality equipment. On the netbook that I do most of my computing on, the “buffering” messages joked about in the above video happen all too often, and I am limited by my computer’s ability to process and display the information it receives. However, these same problems that make the Internet seem second-rate compared to traditional television exist within that medium as well. Anyone with a satellite (or regular ol’ broadcast signals, for that matter) knows that it doesn’t take much for a TV signal to fade or go out completely. (Every time it rains hard at my parents’ house — goodbye, TV.) This is no different from, say, a spotty public wireless network. In fact, with increases in the power and capabilities of Internet networks, it won’t be long until television comes in clearer and is more reliable via a Mediacom Internet connection than a Mediacom digital cable box.
Viewing quality on the end of the user is much the same. Sure, I can’t watch new episodes of “24” in ultra high-def with ear-splitting sound quality on my 5-year-old Hewlett-Packard desktop, but I can’t do it on my TV, either. Having an old computer with limited ability to watch high-quality programming is exactly the same as having a low-quality television. If I want the latest high-def technology, I have to shell out for it. Buying a high-end computer for this reason would be much the same as buying a high-def television. Hell, given advances in computer technology, hooking up a computer to a big screen to watch television seems to be a more favorable option than hooking up a satellite to the same screen. The quality on the user’s side depends entirely on the user’s technology, be it watching Youtube videos or the latest episode of “Glee” on a Fox broadcast signal.
As for quality of programming, the Internet wins as well. It is true that, right now, most of the best shows that can be viewed online are just regular TV shows, but that can easily change. This is because, on the Internet, there is a different focus. Author Tucker Max, who ended up on the New York Times bestseller list with his book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, is a great example of this. Max started his catapult to fame on the back of a bare-bones website. As even he will admit, his writing wasn’t even that good. What mattered was the quality of the content, of the story told. The same is becoming true for Internet television. Flash, and the ability to sell it to advertisers, doesn’t matter in Internet as it does in TV. The goal is not to win over advertisers to make a profit, it’s to win over Internet surfers, a famously more scrupulous bunch than regular television viewers.
The web-only show “The Guild” is a good example of this. The show is produced cheaply, and it’s obvious. But it’s funny, well-written, and overall quality entertainment. A show like this, without a glossed-over finish, wouldn’t survive on television — no advertiser would want to pay for commercial space during it. However, “The Guild” is an absolute hit on the Internet, garnering a sponsorship (commercial-free, even) and a distribution deal from Microsoft. It’s also free to watch, at your leisure. On the Internet, content is king. Captain Hammer said in the video that “people will always need big, glossy, shiny, gloss-covered entertainment.” This may be true, but only if the content beneath the gloss is good. After all, if television has the Internet beat in this regard, why did the Writers Guild of America strike over networks and production companies trying to hold on to as much of their Internet distribution money as possible?
Internet television will still require sponsors and commercials, but not on the scale of television, especially when given things such as banner ads, interstitials, and ads to the side of the program, which don’t interrupt the viewing experience as commercials on television do. Also, with the ability to count traffic in a more reliable manner than is possible with television, the Internet is probably a better place for advertisers to go, because they know exactly how many viewers their getting and can pay accordingly, as compared to the rough estimates offered by tools such as Nielsen ratings. It’s a win for both viewers and advertisers.
As there always is with the Internet, there is also a greater amount of connectivity than with television. When watching a show on television, you’re limited to interaction with those in the room with you. On the Internet, you can interact with everyone else who is watching with you at that time. Watching, say, a live concert streamed over the ’net with millions of people and discussing it with them then and there, as it happens, wins over watching it alone and talking about it with your friends the next day any time. The memorial tribute to Michael Jackson last June attests to this. CNN.com streamed the event live and allowed users to connect via Facebook to meet in that virtual space and share their thoughts and feelings about the show and about Jackson, as it happened. CNN’s television network, or any other channel that showed the memorial for that matter, do not have this ability.
But the Internet has its problems. Given that it’s only been available publicly (on a large scale) for fewer than 20 years, this isn’t surprising. But television, a medium that has been at the forefront of everything for more than 50 years, continues to have those same problems. With unlimited (and even legal) access to content with fewer commercials and an overall shift in focus from advertisers to viewers, the Internet is increasingly becoming a place where television and television-type content can flourish, outside of the outdated notions of the old guard and out of date advertising structures. I still watch television and do not see a reason to give it up currently, but the Internet, with its higher quality and greater focus on content, is here to stay. Television can hang out with the Turks and enjoy its Zima, but for the most part I’ll be over here with my microbrew, watching shows with limited or no commercials, at any time I choose.

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