Video Vertigo: Try Another Direction

What if TV as we know it didn't exist? I'm not kidding. What if the entire digital world had been developed before Sherwood Schwartz dreamed up "Gilligan's Island"? Think outside of the box, beyond the existing structure. First, there would be no such thing as local affiliates. They used to have a purpose -- terrestrial distribution -- but today they really do nothing more than provide station signals to a few non-cable/satellite holdouts and deliver local news.

The syndication industry would look and act very differently. Without affiliates, there would be much less dead air to fill with off-network repeats and talk shows. Programmers in this space would quickly evolve to fill the vertical needs of psychographic, geographic, and socioeconomic segments.

Local news -- no longer provided by affiliates -- would morph into independently produced verticals. Community-based experts like newspapers, universities, and radio stations would develop video divisions. They'd offer content to national media programmers (and potentially to distribution companies) trying to localize their offerings. Independents with enough cachet could end up building their own businesses by syndicating to hundreds, if not thousands of video distribution points.

There probably would be far fewer "networks" and many more "programmers." Why? Because today's pre-packaged cable/satellite offerings, which subsidize small networks with subscriber fees, would be replaced by consumer-driven demand for a broader selection of content. Most important, the cost structure of producing and delivering that content would be much lower, making niche content, rather than lowest-common-denominator networks, the winner with consumers.

Branded networks would be replaced by intelligent networks -- personalization and filtering services that would power content discovery and ad models akin to what we see on the Web today. I'm thinking of companies like Visible World, Tacoda Systems, Invidi, and Revenue Science. They wouldn't have direct consumer brands, necessarily, but they'd power much of what the brand networks deliver into the home. There would be no more unit avails, waste, frequency excesses, and reach fragmentation. Planners would aggregate what they want up from the fragmented landscape, showcase relevant messaging, and limit exposure to desired levels.

Consumer expectations of the video experience wouldn't look anything like it does today. Now the benchmark is the interactive, on-demand Web model. Program lengths of 30 and 60 minutes, for example, and ad pods, wouldn't even be considered in a nonlinear model. The constraints of time, schedules, and audience passivity would be lifted.

And measurement -- ahh, measurement. It would be driven by real data aggregated from millions of households and across a variety of device and platform combinations. Yes, we'd have a sample-based overlay from which to cull demographic and purchase information.

In a nonlinear video world, the near monopolies that exist today in distribution would have much less to protect in terms of carriage and distribution exclusivity, and much more to compete for. We'd actually have an environment that serves consumers and spurs innovation.

If TV didn't exist and someone just dreamed up the idea today, the concept would be much richer than just programmed video. It would include engagement elements that enable consumers to involve themselves with programming and advertising. We'd end up with an open video distribution model, driven by content and consumer needs. Most important, we'd have a model without the burden of legacy business issues: intrusive ad models, gated distribution arrangements, and prohibitive talent/rights fees.

In the real world, those legacy issues hold back innovation and force consumers to go out of their way to engage with digital video recorders, personal broadcasters like Sling-Box, portable screens, and home networks just to benefit from today's evolving media landscape. If the legacy issues aren't addressed, the promise of nonlinear media will fail to materialize.

Check out what's going on. This is our chance to reinvent the old model.

Adam Gerber is vice president, ad products and strategy, at Brightcove, an Internet TV service. (

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