Just about everybody concedes that one of the ways newspapers went bad was by offering up their content online for free and not making it much different from what was in the print product. Maybe that puts it a little incorrectly—newspapers didn’t find new ways to use their print products in new ways.
Hence, in big cities particularly, newspapers are weak and irrelevant enough that it’s assumed most of them will just limp along until one day the owners don’t print them at all. Newspapers squandered an opportunity—all those years of fat profits—without coming up with a viable second act.
How is that different from what is happening with television? Network television shows are easily found online, on Hulu or Hulu Plus or Netflix or from, say, Comcast’s video on demand service. You can watch them either with no commercials, or limited commercials. You can find clips all over the place—there’s really not that much of a need to watch the “Today” show. Missing scheduled programs means you are a little late—emphasis on the little.
But except for the thin advantage of being able to knowingly discuss what happened on “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men” at work on Monday morning, avoiding “live” TV has never been easier or more painless.
“There will still be some linear real time viewing of TV for the Super Bowl or breaking news events ... but entertainment-based video will move to more on-demand,” Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail predicted to the news agency AFP recently. “If you own a TV station, you are in the same position as a newspaper. There will be other ways to watch content and you're going to be very challenged.” But he pointed out, “If you are the content owner, you should not worry at all.”
The thing is, while the big networks own stations in the largest market—and make hundreds of millions of dollars from them—out there in less glam towns, stations are owned by other giant companies like Gannett or Sinclair or Hearst, that have affiliate deals with networks. But when repeat episodes of network shows go to Internet packagers—like Hulu, which is owned by three of the four English language broadcast networks—those stations don’t share in the revenue those replays command. But the networks and the studios that they own, cash in there.
“Streaming continues to be a terrific growth driver for us,” CBS chief Leslie Moonves says in the AFP article that appears at the same time as do a spate of stories confirming that this way or that, the once fringe practice of cord-cutting is now a full-fledged reality not just with young adults but across a wider spectrum. Online video’s attractions are full enough that scheduled, commercial-laden prime time shows just aren’t competitive.
The fall season premieres, once a big deal, will now arrive with a relative whisper, and it’s not just because “network TV” is outmoded in its story-telling style (though that’s kind of true), but because it is not in any way unique. There is no urgency. It is not a hard to find commodity. We are not far removed from the days NBC heralded its “must-see Thursday” line-up, but today, Thursday via DVR can be next week, or via Hulu, next month or next year.
Why should I care to lament broadcasting’s problems? Well, I don’t, but it seems that at the rate programming, new and slightly used, is going to online, there’s going to be a gaping hole where local ad sales once used to be. In the new, fast world of the Internet, that hole might get very big in a very short period of time.