Posts about tv

The silver lining in the #nbcfail cloud

A touch of irony: There’s good news in the #nbcfail fuss for the network and all networks: The channel is not dead, not yet.

If I went too far — which, of course, is what I do for a living — I might argue that once we could get all the sports from the Olympics live on the web and apps, then we’d abandon old-fashioned broadcast channels and fragment ourselves silly. The channel, I’d argue, is a vestigial and artificial necessity of scarce broadcast spectrum, so who needs it?

But, of course, that didn’t happen. NBC is getting record ratings for its old-fashioned channels — even though it is airing an incredible volume of video online and even though Twitter, Facebook, and the web act as gigantic spoiler networks assuring that every result is known by every American hours before prime time.

Here’s the silver lining, then: Viewers still want channels and the value they add. That is precisely why they’re so mad that NBC is not showing the hottest contests live, because that’s what they expect a great channel to give them: the best, right now.

So NBC could take the #NBCfail fiasco as a Valentine. Not only would I argue that all the spoilers and chatter online are driving audience to prime time but the audience is telling NBC they’d prefer to watch a well-produced channel than the internet.

Take that, Jarvis and all you internet triumphalists!

Listen hard, NBC. Serve your audience well and maybe you’ll keep an audience.

#nbcfail economics

Reading the #nbcfail hashtag has been at least as entertaining as much of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. It’s also enlightening — economically enlightening.

There’s the obvious:
* The people formerly known as the audience have a voice and boy are they using it to complain about NBC’s tape delays of races and the opening ceremonies, about its tasteless decision to block the UK tribute to its 7/7 victims, and about its commentators’ idiocies (led by Meredith Vieira’s ignorance of the inventor of the web; they could have used their extra three hours to enlighten her).
* Twitter is a gigantic spoiler machine. It would be nearly impossible to isolate oneself from news of results because even if you don’t read Twitter or Facebook or go to the net, someone you know, someone you run into will. Information can’t be controlled. Amen.
* We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible.
Those arguments have all been made well and wittily on #nbcfail.

The counterargument has been an economic one: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for the rights to broadcast, billions that pay for the stadiums and security and ceremony. The argument is also made that NBC’s strategy is working because it is getting record ratings.

But there’s no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing. Indeed, with spoilers everywhere, viewing is up. I can easily imagine people watching the Phelps defeat live tweeting their heads off telling friends to watch it in prime time. I can imagine people thanking NBC for curating the best of the day at night and giving folks a chance to watch the highlights. I tweeted: “I’m waiting for NBC to take credit for idea Twitter helps build buzz & ratings for tape-delayed events.” (Which led Piers Morgan’s producer, Jonathan Wald, to take joking credit and then the executive producer of the NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, to offer it. To his credit, Bell has engaged with at least one tweeted suggestion.)

If NBC superserved its viewers, the fans, wouldn’t that be strategy for maximum audience? The BBC is superserving its viewers. I went to TunnelBear so I could sample what the BBC is offering on the air and in its iPlayer — which, of course, we can’t use in the U.S. — and it’s awesome. But, of course, the BBC is supported by its viewers’ fees. So the argument is that the BBC serves viewers because they’re the boss while NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bills.

I still don’t buy it. I don’t want to buy it, for that pushes media companies to put all they do behind walls, to make us pay for what we want. I still see a future for advertising support and free content. I still believe that if NBC gave the fans what they wanted rather than trying to make them do what NBC thinks it wants, NBC could win by growing audience and engagement and thus better serving sponsors. I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights. It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality. To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter.

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

The bottom line for Olympics fans is that, as Bill Gross pointed out, much of the blame for what we’re seeing — and not seeing — falls to the IOC and the overblown economics of the games. There is the root of greed that leads to brand police who violate free speech rights in the UK by chilling use of the innocent words “2012” and “games”, and tape delays, and branded athletes. This is the spirit of the Olympics Games? It is now.

Why I was rooting for Cablevision: Free Glee!

Glee - wide-eyed 04Believe it or not, I was disappointed that Cablevision settled with Fox, albeit grumpily, agreeing to pay retransmission fees for its signals. It’s not surprising: Baseball fans wanted their World Series; the FCC was hankering to intervene (without the power); and one really couldn’t imagine going without Fox forever … not yet. So Cablevision caved. Some say this is a sign that content remains king. I think it’s more a case of Humpty-Dumpty teetering.

Hanging tough against Fox was a first shot in the next media battle: the unraveling of TV, the separation of programs from channels. Old TV channels have become an unnecessary layer of curation. It’s the shows we want, not the networks. Networks are and always have been meaningless brands. They provided services: distribution, promotion, monetization. But as in the rest of media — as with news publishers, book publishers, radio stations, book stores — those functions can now be taken away from the middlemen and done more efficiently elsewhere.

The problem for Cablevision is that the unraveling has to start at home. It can’t unbundle Glee and the World Series from Fox until it unbundles its huge packages of utterly unwanted channels that cable companies force us to pay for though we never watch them. Physician, heal theyself.

Of course, this unbundling will be painful for cable companies. They gather huge revenue selling those bundles to trapped customers who have no choice but to pay for Fuse if they want Food. It won’t be an easy transition. But once choice arrives, we will demand our freedom from bundles.

And this unbundling will be quite painful — no, fatal — for many channels. No longer subsidized by being sold with Food, Fuse may die.

Producers and stars will also have trouble with the transition, though I think they’ll come out on top as kings of content. Today, they have to share revenue with many middlemen but at least they know how to use the system. It gets better for them, though, when they’re on the other side of the transition, building direct relationships with fans and not sharing revenue with so many middlemen. They’ll be more efficient — maybe smaller but also possibly more profitable with more control and less risk. Yes, it’ll be harder to make blockbusters but that’s getting harder anyway as we get more fragmentation (read: choice) in media.

What it will take to start disrupting the old ways is for a big star or show to start distributing directly on the internet. The big star’s name will be sufficient for promotion. Distribution is all but free. There needs to be a structure for monetization: selling ads (Google? AOL?) and/or subscriptions (Amazon?). Note well that in entertainment, as opposed to commodity news, I believe pay walls will work. I’ll pay for Weeds — I already have — but won’t pay for one of 5,000 news stories about the same event I could watch myself.

So when we reach the promised land of entertainment, we get rid of the old, value-extracting middlemen: channels. Will cable companies still be around? Possibly. Probably. Someone will still deliver the internet to our devices. That could still be the cable company if it learns how to start adding value rather than just extracting it with bundles and fees and restrictions on what we can do with our own TVs.

There is a new role for curators who add value by helping us find the entertainment we’d like. Enter Google TV among many hopefuls for that job. There are new opportunities to make money with data and targeting (cue privacy fretting). We the audience are no longer hostage to Burbank programmers’ schedules, so entertainment can change form; it can be something other than 22 or 44 minutes long; it can be collaborative, with someone becoming a host and a platform for our creativity (YouTube?); it can last for as many episodes as it should rather than as many as The Office is making.

As with so much else in entertainment and technology, the FCC could screw this up. They’re about to try by asking for more authority to intervene in the retransmission negotiations like those Cablevision and Fox just went through. The problem with that — as with so much else the FCC and FTC and meddling in — is that they would act to support the incubments and prevent disruption, against our own interests, propping up old pricing structures and old models of entertainment and keeping disruptive newcomers out. No, FCC, no!

Here’s the problem with retransmission: Fox succeeded in making Cablevision pay for the right to transmit its broadcast signals. Except those broadcast signals — transmitted on airwaves we, the people, own and gave to channels — are supposed to be free. But now Cablevision is paying for them and those fees will be passed onto its customers. So we, the viewers, will pay for Fox twice — once as an opportunity cost in revenue lost to taxpayers by not selling TV spectrum and now twice in new fees to Cablevision and other cable companies. Thank you very much, FCC and Congress. Way to go. Whom are you serving again?

Once we get socked with more and more fees thanks to retransmission blackmail by channels, I’ll just bet we’ll start protesting to the FCC and it will have reason at last to pressure cable networks to unbundle. Once that’s done, we also need the right to unbundle broadcast channels; I don’t plan to pay for the CW, whatever the hell that is anyway. And once that happens, retranmission becomes as irrelevant as rabbit ears.

Now the next problem is that channels will give up their exclusive rights to programs over their dead bodies. But it has been happening, starting when ABC streamed Desperate Housewives online and as shows show up on Hulu. But now that, too, is getting ugly as Fox tried to block Cablevision users coming to Hulu (until it found it was screwing non-Cablevision viewers, too). And now ABC, CBS, Fox, and Hulu are blocking Google TV, which is insane, for they’re only blocking viewers who want to find their shows. Thus arise all kinds of new (and, for me, unanticipated) network neutrality issues, blocking content based on how you come to the internet or what search vehicle you use. Insane.

Listen, people, TV should be simple. It will be simple, damnit: We want to watch the shows we want to watch whenever and wherever we want to watch them. We’ll watch ads with them or we’ll pay for them. We won’t give a damn whether we watch them on a channel or on a web site or in an app or via Facebook; via a TV or a computer or a phone or a tablet; streaming from the cloud or from our hard drive; found via search or friends’ recommendations on Facebook or Twitter. Channels that stop us from watching them [Fox, are you listening?] are hastening their own deaths. Stars, producers, and studios will, like water, find their way around you as will we, the viewers. You middlemen are doomed. It’s only a matter of time.

So don’t think that Fox won this war. It only won this round. Fox’s parent, News Corp., is turning into the last of the great control freaks of content, building pay walls around its newspapers; blackmailing cable providers — not exactly a sympathetic bunch — into paying retransmission fees for content that is otherwise broadcast free over our airwaves; and pulling links off Google. News Corp. is turning into the uninternet. So fine. we’ll watch how they do as TV and media unravel around them. Can’t wait.

Where the TV fight goes

My first bit of advice to pissed-off Cablevision customers in New York — who’ve just lost WABC right before the Oscars — I do recommend that you switch to Verizon Fios. You won’t get it in time. It’s not perfect. But for me, it has been a helluva lot better than Cablevision: more channels, better service, better broadband, good phone service, impressive installation. Switch. It will feel good. It will feel just. I spent years sparring with Cablevision to get what I paid for and I’m glad to be rid of them.

This doesn’t mean I side with ABC in this fight. They — like Fox before them — are trying to get us to pay for free TV channels. This was a point I wanted to make at last week’s FCC workshop on the future of media: It’s no longer true that broadcast channels are free. Fewer than 13% of Americans get broadcast channels over the air; the rest of us have to pay for cable or satellite to get access and now these channels — which got our spectrum for free — are trying to charge us yet more.

Who’s fighting for us? Not the FCC.

But I think that as these fees are fought over and granted to broadcast channels and passed on to viewers — adding up to a likely $72 for New York’s half-a-dozen commercial channels — then I still think that there will be a consumer revolt and the FCC will have the cause it seems to have wanted to require a la carte pricing for cable.

Then both broadcasters and cable operators and their parent companies will get their just desserts. I will not pay for 90 percent of the channels I am forced to pay for now. That will reduce revenue to cable. It will mean that many channels will no longer be subsidized. It will kill marginal channels.

And that will open the door for internet programming. More and more TVs will be directly connected to the internet. Program creators will be able to break free of the control of cable MSOs. We’ll be watching more programming on our mobile devices and pads and computers. Fragmentation? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

I would invest in low-cost production of, say, home and food programs that can reach sufficient critical mass online. I’d invest in niche programming — see: TWiT et al — that can reach a very low level of critical mass and sell highly targeted advertising. I would not invest in cable companies or big, old TV companies. They’re just trying to milk the cash cow before she keels over.

Drowning upstream

Here’s what I think is a pretty solid business tip: I wouldn’t back or bet on a company and industry that’s described this way in today‘s New York Times (my emphasis):

Like newspaper owners, media moguls are looking for new ways to protect their investment from the ravages of the Internet. And, as with the newspaper industry, the answer remains elusive.

I’d rather invest in a company that will take advantage of the new opportunities of the internet, not seeing ravages in the future but instead growth and profit. I’ve said often that protection is no strategy for the future. An industry whose strategy for the future is built on trying to keep us from doing what we want to do and resist the flow of the internet is an industry that is merely biding time. That should be the lesson they learn from newspapers and music.

Yes, I think that the tactic described in that story, put forward by Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes, of enabling us to watch shows we’ve already paid for online makes sense. Indeed, I refuse to use HBO on demand on cable today because they want to charge me extra to watch what I’ve already paid for. So I’ll rush to the chance to watch my shows without having to go through the bother of recording them or paying for them twice.

But the real future is an on-demand future, an unbundled future. Once freed from the forced march of cable bundles, I will buy only the content I want to buy online, no longer being bribed into supporting the 90 percent of cable channels I never watch so I can get the 10 percent I want.

For that matter, what’s a channel? I was an an event last week with entertainment moguls of various camps and one asked another whether the channel would die. The second exec didn’t think so. At first, I agreed, as I pictured myself on the couch watching one of the channels I do care about.

But then I pictured my kids on the couch. They’re not doing what I do. They never just watch channels (tennis matches excluded). They live on-demand. They watch programming only through the web, Hulu, the DVR, on-demand channels. Some look at that future, our kids’ future, and see “the ravages of the internet.” They’re not long for this world; they’re only trying to delay the inevitable. They’re trying to swim upstream against the internet. But they’re only going to drown there.