For content providers, the brave new world of on-demand television is a mixed bag. On the one hand, fewer and fewer people are likely to ever discover a show like Modern Marvels: ’80s Tech by passively stumbling upon it. “There’s no question that [on-demand television] hurts that sampling aspect,” says Mark Stern, executive vice president of original programming at Syfy. “It definitely makes it harder for programs that are one-offs or just not necessarily flagship, appointment television.”
But for Syfy and others, there are also tremendous benefits to the new consumption model. As the New York Times recently reported, many programs are experiencing ratings boosts due to DVRs. It makes sense when you think about it: More people now have more time to watch more television without ever worrying about missing an episode. According to the article, the DVR effect has been known to account for as much as 20 percent of a program’s total viewership. For Syfy, online distribution has had a similar effect on television ratings. As odd as it may sound, putting episodes up on Hulu and iTunes has actually grown the television audience, not diminished it. A major reason for that, according to Stern, is that viewers who would never consider flipping to the Syfy Channel are discovering its shows when they’re taken out of context.
“I love the fact that iTunes is agnostic in that way,” Stern says. “It’s not a channel, and so when someone sees a free episode of Battlestar Galactica up there, it softens some of the misconception that the show is only for fanboy sci-fi geeks. When our episodes went up on iTunes and Hulu and became available to a larger audience, it didn’t hurt our ratings. It helped it. I quickly went from, ‘How to we keep this off of iTunes?’ to ‘So, when does this get posted on iTunes?’”
OK, but surely network execs are mourning the death of the meta media experience, right? “Television as the kind of communal fireplace or water cooler is a bit of an archaic concept now,” Stern says. “An event like the Olympics or the Super Bowl is the real exception now and will continue to become the exception more and more.”
On the other hand, while TV on-demand is certainly killing the notion of a singular television community, something much more powerful is filling the void. The communal fireplace has gotten smaller and much more intimate. “In my office I find people forming affinity groups,” Stern says. “People come in talking about last night’s Sons of Anarchy or Mad Men and if someone isn’t watching, it becomes this thing where they try to recruit them to watch the show. In a world where there are more shows on than ever, word-of-mouth and what my friends are watching is more important. So we’ve still got community. It may not be national discussion per se, but it’s more of a micro-community discussion about must-see TV.”
Maybe I won’t miss cable, then. But, I’m still very wary of a future without it. If any one player can spur a mass abandonment of cable, it’s Apple. And there will most definitely be collateral damage caused by a large-scale shift to online television viewing. The first casualty would be the price of broadband. If swaths of cable subscribers begin canceling their service in favor of a just an Internet connection, the Comcasts of the world will have to make up for lost revenue somehow. The second casualty could be programming itself. If you can imagine a world in which most people are actively downloading shows instead of passively watching whatever happens to be on, then you can imagine that the kind of shows getting the green light for production in this new environment will be equally new. Can I kiss shows like Modern Marvels goodbye, or will I be able to wallow in its complete archive of episodes online?
And what about new shows? Will niche audiences be pursued ruthlessly with ever-more specialized programming, or will they be cast aside altogether for safer mainstream hits that tap into the new consumption model in unforseen ways?
What do you think? Are you ready for life without cable TV?single page
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