2009-03-08

The New Television

Television sucks.

Well, not entirely: most television sucks.

But to paraphrase Sturgeon's law: of course 90% of television is crap; 90% of everything is crap.

Despite my general opinions, not all television shows are horrible, even though most of them are. But even if you find a show which is a good match for your preferences, television as a medium has some severe problems:
  1. excessive advertisements
  2. time restrictions of the broadcast model: you watch when they broadcast it
  3. poor broadcast quality of analog TV
  4. requirement for a cable subscription to watch certain shows
  5. serialization: new episodes are only available once per week
For many people, Tivo and other DVR's solve the first two problems adequately: they allow for both time shifting, and skipping ads. But they don't solve problems with either broadcast quality or cable subscriptions. Tivo is not the new television.

I enjoy digital broadcast TV slightly more than analog, but in reality I think it's irrelevant. Like Blu-Ray, it's too little, too late, and possibly even solving the wrong problem. Digital TV solves problem #3, but basically nothing else; this only mattered for people who didn't already have digital cable anyway. Digital broadcast is also not the new television.

For a long time, our solution to all of these problems has been Netflix. We borrowed the TV series we wanted to watch, after they had already hit DVD. We watched episodes when we wanted, and as many as we wanted, without commercials. But then, we ran out of episodes we wanted to watch on DVD. In terms of content and delivery, DVD's are roughly equivalent to the 1980's technology of VHS tapes of TV shows; they are definitely not the new television.

For watching an ongoing series, our next obvious step was the Internet. Individual channels, including cable channels such as the Sci-Fi channel, put their broadcast shows on the Internet a day or a week after their broadcast date. Web sites such as Hulu aggregate various shows and stream all of them from a central location. This allowed us to watch episodes whenever we wanted, long before they became available on DVD, while avoiding most (but not all) of the commercials. But this is just a new distribution channel for shows which are produced in long-entrenched Hollywood tradition. The Internet is a necessary afterthought, but not the primary distribution mechansim. This is very close to the new television, but not quite.

The new television isn't television at all: you don't need television, to create a good video production. Broadcast and cable television are expensive broadcast media. They pay for content to be created, but they don't create content. Often, they stifle others' creative efforts in the name of the bottom line, because national network broadcast is a very expensive part of allowing a show to succeed.

As a broadcast medium, the Internet is enough by itself: television is not required. The Internet is a much cheaper broadcast channel, and its cost is proportional to its audience. The proportional cost to broadcast, combined with inexpensive Internet marketing, can allow shows to succeed even if they have a small audience. Allowing a show to cater to a smaller audience allows it to follow its creative vision more closely, instead of trying to appeal to a "least common denominator" audience.

In some ways, Youtube is the new television: it certainly replaces "America's Funniest Home Videos" without any problem. But it is, by all accounts, quite amateur and unpredictable in its production qualities.

There are other Internet-only productions, which have met with various degrees of success. These are the New Television.

Video podcasts have already had success as Internet-only video talk shows, but this is not what I think of when I consider high quality television shows. I think of fictional drama or comedy, well written and well produced. I will admit that currently, the best Internet productions are aimed at an audience which is geekier than average. But geeks are early adopters. Other less geeky shows will follow in the footsteps of the geek, and take the limelight they desire (but that the geeks do not).

If you want to witness the future of television, I have a few recommendations:
  • Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a musical produced by Joss Whedon, who became famous for the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. It was produced with a low budget during the Hollywood writer's strike, and released directly to the Internet.
  • The Guild is an ongoing serial show based on the trials and tribulations of a guild of online video gamers. The show just finished its second season, and the episodes range anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes in length. This points out another problem with Old Television: "43 minutes plus 17 minutes of commercials" is an extremely limiting format. There's no reason, from the perspective of a show's creator, why every episode must have the same length with commercials in the same location. That restriction is imposed by the broadcaster, not the content creator.
  • Escape from City-17 is an online short (hopefully, a series) inspired by the video game Half-Life. It is notable for having an extremely small budget, while using video effects which surpass anything available on network television 10-20 years ago.
Eventually, calling shows like these "Internet TV" will seem as quaint and anachronistic as using an icon of a floppy disk for the "save" function, or using an icon of an envelope to signify "e-mail." In the end, The New Television isn't television at all, and that is what makes it new.

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