The Revolution Will Be Televised Part Two: The Future Is Now

No one can know what exactly will come from this current strike—but its potential to completely alter the landscape of television, should it drag on long enough, can’t be ignored. It’s one thing to complain about the talk-show reruns, or tire of the newsmagazines and reality shows that are produced en masse, or mourn the loss of good shows axed before their time because of production issues. But those issues may be petty concerns by comparison to the future of the medium.

It’s well-accepted that a significant portion of the viewing audience never returned after the 1988 strike. That hurt the networks, but that effect was muted somewhat by other factors in play. Cable television was just starting to becoming a strong force, the Big Three were joined by FOX and other baby-nets, and TV as we knew it was changing anyhow. Audience numbers were dropping for many reasons, and the expectations of execs and advertisers were being reset. The loss of that estimated 10% of viewership was subsumed into this brave new cathode world.

And that could happen again, here in 2007. TV is once again going through a Willy Wonka Tunnel of Horrors. But the results, this time, could be very different in terms of what TV looks like when it comes out on the other side

It’s not that this is a doom and gloom scenario. If it happens, it’s the natural evolution of the medium, from the old days of a few networks and scant hours of programming (all of it live) to what’s happening now, what was bound to happen sooner or later: the breakdown of networks as scheduled programming. Asking what time a show is on will one day be as antiquated as radio dramas, as 8-tracks, as pagers. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The groundwork for such a system is already in place, though in rudimentary form. Comcast offers an On-Demand system that probably resembles the model to which most of us will subscribe one day—only it will be faster, more reliable, and have a menu of viewing options several thousands of times greater than the experimental set that’s available today.

And that’s not a bad thing, certainly. Actually, it’s more and more the way we watch television anyway, even if we currently use a middleman to accomplish it. What’s the difference, ultimately, between recording a show when it airs and watching it later on your DVR (or even the good old obsolete VCR?) and downloading it (streaming or otherwise) directly to your screen? I almost never watch anything anymore when it actually airs. And that’s true for a growing number of people.

There is, of course, something lost in this new system. There’s a charm to the old ways of broadcasting that many of us might want to retain. Certainly there’s something to be said for having a national TV experience; watercooler-type discussions won’t happen as often without the morning-after effect of watching a great episode and them dissecting it with your pals. Ratings, too, will change completely. Lots of things will change, including the number of shows produced by any one network—which will, themselves, start to resemble movie studios more than the juggernauts of television that they are now.

Of course, lots will change along with this. Television has a deep and sometimes invisible infrastructure that’s been built around it, that depends on its current model in order to function properly. What of the network news divisions, for example? Would they change, too, or would some of them cease to exist? (And what would that do to the quality of our already-depleted press?) What about the laws currently in place regarding Public Service Announcements and children’s and educational programming? What about local affiliates? And my god, what about the advertising revenue?

This last question, of course, is where the big question lies for the powers that be, since it directly addresses the profitability of the medium. Television has been worrying this issue for years now, and hasn’t come to a good solution yet. But it, like the internet to which it will ultimately be married, will come to one. In fact, it’s the coming together of those two mediums that may finally spur true internet-broadcast profitability. Commercials probably won’t look like commercials anymore—it will be more product placement, perhaps a move back to sponsorship. OfficeMax might present The Office, for example, in the same way that Winston cigarettes used to present The Flintstones, only without the soul-scarring visual of Fred and Barney lighting up behind their stone houses.

The revolution is coming, make no mistake. We’re on the boat, in the tunnel, with acid-trip visions of striking writers, Rupert Murdoch, giant peacocks, and all-seeing eyes floating menacingly on the walls. (And the danger must be growing, for the rowers keep on rowing, and they certainly aren’t showing any sign that they are slowing.)

And then we’ll come out the other side, and TV will be its normal, terrible self…though maybe a little wiser for the experience. -- Teague Bohlen

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Sean Cronin