Final project - Watching TV all the time
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Monday, April 11, 2005

Only you can save television

March 27, 2005

Only you can save television

TestpatternIt would be easy to make this blog a running chronicle of all media and entertainment in the throes of radical change. If nothing else it would be a breeze to update daily with a selection from the overwhelming number of examples out there. And as it happens, the radical change theme also plays strongly to the Long Tail. As the business models of traditional media and entertainment crumble, so will the hit-machine distribution bottlenecks that stand between us and a million niches.

I'm going to resist being such a chronicle, however, mostly on the grounds that you can get that elsewhere and I've got a book to write. But every now and then the tide of evidence will compel me to make an exception to note the obvious: that we're ending one era and entering another where the rules are sure to be different.

The best example of that is television, which is in the sweet spot of all Long Tail forces. So today, let me make one of those exceptions by explaining why TV is the first place to look for Long Tail opportunities. Here's why:

  • TV produces more content than any other media and entertainment industry. There are an estimated 31 million hours of original television content produced each year. Although that isn't as much as radio, most radio is either chat or recorded music that is available elsewhere, so it's not in the same league. In addition, 115m digital video tapes are sold each year for personal camcorders.
  • Only a tiny fraction of it is available to you. First, the average American household now gets 100 channels of TV. While that sounds like a lot--it's 876,000 hours of video broadcast to the average home each year--that's still less than 3% of the commercial video that's produced for broadcast.
  • Making matters much worse, unless that home has a DVR (and only 4-5% of US households do) and someone is spending a good chunk of their free time scouring listings to program it, they're going to miss virtually all of that TV. Once TV is missed, it's usually gone. Only a tiny fraction of shows are syndicated, and an even smaller fraction makes it to DVD.
  • Thus the ratio of produced content to available content is the highest of any industry I've looked at. Other industries may produce more content--print, for instance--but it's far more available (see Google). Only television treats its premium content as disposable. True, a lot of it actually is. But not all, and not as much as is effectively thrown away after a brief moment in the sun.
  • Other industries with great Long Tail potential either know it, are already feeling the pressure, and are well on their way to doing something about it (music, print media, books, radio) or they are doing so well that they have little incentive to shake things up (film, games). TV, on the other hand, is just about to hit its crisis, whether its executives are willing to admit it or not. That crisis includes: ad-skipping, the disappearing 18-34 male, rising ad rates despite chronically falling ratings, and the death of the 30-second spot (see also Sunday's NYT piece). My friends in the biz suggest that this year's upfront will be the first in memory to go negative. If so, that would be a real wake-up call.

There is no shortage of smart people thinking about how TV can find its way out of its corner. But it's not easy. For starters, most of the networks are content renters, not content owners. (NBC, which bought Universal ten months ago, is now an exception). This means that the archives are often not theirs to monetize.

Rights also continue to be a total hairball, made even more complicated by exclusive geographic distribution deals (which conflict with the Internet's global nature) and syndication options. And then there's music, which is a nightmare. Want to know why you can't watch old WKRP in Cincinnati episodes? It's too hard to license the music that was used in the show.

Bottom line: TV is begging to be reinvented. Fortunately, there are a lot of new companies that have emerged to try to do just that. One of them is Brightcove (formerly Vidmark), whose CEO, Jeremy Allaire, gave me a briefing last week at PC Forum. They've got an open-access video publishing platform that could make it as easy to be a video publisher tomorrow as it is to be a bookseller today. Impressive.

Finally, I'll finish this post with additional links for those who still have an appetite for more:

* Berlesmann is launching a P2P platform for video and games downloading.
* The director of the Blair Witch Project is releasing his new video episodes on BitTorrent.
* Fox is releasing some of its shows as $10 DVD "starter sets".
* PSFK provides a good roundup of other IP TV news and stats.

Posted by Chris Anderson in On-topic | Permalink



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