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Switching channels: Brad Oswald on the future of TV

From mainstream to streaming, the future is fuzzy for its next incarnation

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If he'd been born 400 years later, and opted to direct his talents toward the era's prevailing pop-culture medium, perhaps the world's most well-known playwright's most famous line might have been written more like this:

"TV, or not TV? That is the question."

And in a 21st-century context, the amended query in Bill Shakespeare's signature soliloquy would be a pertinent one, because just exactly what "television" is these days is a bit difficult to define.

When we talk about watching TV, what do we mean? Sitting on the sofa, remote control in hand, viewing your favourite dramas and comedies the same way your parents and grandparents did? Or refusing to be constrained by the traditional prime-time schedule, choosing instead to record programs on a DVR (digital video recorder) and watch them when it suits you?

Or do you prefer to ignore mainstream television altogether, opting to watch streamed and/or downloaded versions of popular shows that are found, legally or not, online?

As evidence of just how much, and how quickly, TV is changing these days, consider this: The biggest television news so far this year concerned a TV show that isn't really a TV show at all. Arrested Development, which was cancelled by Fox Broadcasting in 2006 after two-and-a-half low-rated seasons, was revived this year when 15 new episodes were produced for Netflix, an on-demand provider of streaming media content.

Because of its past life as a mainstream-TV title, Arrested Development immediately became a symbol for a growing trend in "television" production -- the creation of TV-style content that is not available on traditional TV networks but, instead, exists only in online form.

"Here's the bottom line," says Marc Berman, editor in chief of the industry-analysis website TV Media Insights. "Arrested Development ran on Fox for two-and-a-half years; critics loved it, and it won a lot of awards. And Fox was patient -- they didn't cancel it after one season, or even after the second season, even though they couldn't find the kind of audience it needed to be considered a success on a broadcast network.

"So here we are, several years later, and it's back, running new episodes on Netflix. Obviously, the definition of how you determine if a show is a hit or a miss is changing. There was a lot of social buzz about Arrested, and a lot of rumours that there was going to be a movie, but this (Netflix season) proves that something that can't survive on a broadcast network can live elsewhere."

TV, or not TV, indeed. In the current context, the TV you're watching might not be on TV at all.

How did we get here? Where are we going from here? And what will the future hold for television as we've known it for the past 60 or so years?

TV, the old-fashioned way:

First, a bit of writerly context: When I took over as the Free Press's television critic in the spring of 1988, the TV landscape was rather sparsely populated. Beyond the three major Canadian networks -- CBC, CTV and Global -- homegrown choices included MTN, the Portage la Prairie-based station launched in 1986 by Brandon-based Craig Media (the channel eventually relocated to Winnipeg and became A-Channel and, later, Citytv), and a limited list of Canadian specialty services that included TSN and MuchMusic, which were distributed as stand-alone cable channels. A small roster of newly licensed Canadian cable channels, including Vision TV, YTV, Family Channel, The Weather Network and CBC Newsworld would be added within the next year.

Imported cable-TV channels available to Canadians included CNN, FNN (Financial News Network), A&E, CMT (Country Music Television) and TLC (then operating with an educational agenda under the name The Learning Channel).

South of the border, the traditional broadcast-network framework (ABC, CBS and NBC) had recently expanded to include upstart Fox Broadcasting, which launched in the spring of 1987 but was limited to two nights (Saturday and Sunday) of prime-time programming. Fox's first-year roster included Married... With Children, The Tracey Ullman Show (which would spawn The Simpsons) and 21 Jump Street (which launched the career of Johnny Depp), along with less memorable titles such as Women in Prison, Werewolf and The New Adventures of Beans Baxter.

"The whole broadcast model is changing very rapidly, and everything is going to have to be adjusted." -- Marc Berman, editor in chief, TV Media Insights.

"This light bulb goes on in my head: This is the future, except the future is now." -- TV/online content producer Brian Robbins.

"Ultimately, we're in the content business. We've made movies that were distributed by studios; we've made shows that were distributed by (TV) networks. This is just another avenue." -- Brian Robbins, founder, AwesomenessTV YouTube channel.

The top-rated shows on U.S. television in the 1987-88 season were The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers, The Golden Girls and Growing Pains.

It would be six years (1994) before Time magazine published a cover story titled "The Strange New World of the Internet."

Until the last few years of the 20th century, "watching TV" meant just that -- sitting in front of an old-fashioned television set, viewing programs live or, perhaps, that had been taped on your VCR.

After a quarter-century on the TV beat, my assessment is this: Television has changed more -- and more quickly -- in each of the last five years than it did in the 20 years that preceded them.

TV and the digital age:

At the dawn of the 21st century, a convergence of technological and socio-cultural shifts brought rapid and massive change to the ways television programs are produced, distributed and consumed.

Cable providers made the transition from analog to digital signal distribution, allowing for a rapid and steady increase in the number and quality of channels available to their customers. At the same time, producers of TV content were shifting toward high-definition programming, and HD-ready flat-screen television sets quickly began to replace traditional picture-tube models. Old-style VCRs were replaced by DVD players and digital video recorders (DVRs). As a result of these accumulated advances, the home-entertainment experience was greatly enhanced.

Away from the couch and remote, the Internet came of age, becoming a dominant force in communication, information distribution and social interaction. Thanks to the emergence of file-sharing services like Napster and its successors, a generation of new consumers was raised with the belief content -- music, movies, TV shows -- should be available free of charge to whoever had the ability to locate and download it.

For young users of technology, the advent of smartphones, sophisticated laptop computers, iPods, iPads and other personal communication devices also meant the big TV set in the living room or rec room was no longer the only screen available.

A generational shift:

"My kids would prefer to lie in bed with their iPhones... and watch a movie that way, rather than watching the TV that's in their room," says Brian Robbins, 49, a former teen actor (Head of the Class) who successfully transitioned into the TV-production business (his executive-producer credits include Smallville and One Tree Hill) and then into production of TV-style content for online distribution. "To me, it's strange behaviour -- I want to sit back and watch something; they would rather lean forward and watch something. For our audience, there's nothing unusual about (watching content online).

"We're in a generation now of (teens) who have grown up with iPhones and iPads and computers. And for younger kids, an iPad is what's normal -- they'll go up to a TV and do this (hand-swiping motion) to try to move the screen. For them, that's normal behaviour. It's not a question of when, because it's happening now. If you're 15 and under, that's the reality."

Even for those next-generation viewers who cling to the old-style couch-and-TV-set entertainment experience, there's a different set of expectations when it comes to the content that appears on that 50-inch plasma screen.

"A lot of people I know have an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) hookup, so they can stream (content) on their computers but then attach it to a TV," says university student McClay Sveinson, 20. "There are a few people I go to school with who don't even have cable in their apartments -- they have a TV, but no cable. They only hook it up to a laptop, because that's how they watch.

"The way most other people I know watch TV is not by watching while each new episode is being aired; they'll get onto a show (online) and watch until they've caught up, and then they'll go to something else, starting with season one, episode one, and watching a bunch of them whenever they have some time."

The crumbling revenue model:

A recent study by media analyst Todd Juenger of Sanford C. Bernstein Co. suggests by 2015, nearly half the viewers of traditional television will be 50 or older. That doesn't mean people under 50 aren't watching dramas, comedies and reality shows -- it simply means they aren't watching them the old-fashioned way.

This, along with rapidly increasing use of DVRs, which allow viewers to watch TV shows without enduring commercials, has created a huge challenge for broadcasters that depend on ratings-based advertising revenue to fund their operations. Simply put, if advances in technology allow consumers to watch "TV" without viewing commercials, it becomes increasingly difficult for networks to justify the billions in ad revenue they charge for those 15- and 30-second spots in their prime-time shows.

"When I watch my favourite TV shows, I don't watch them in the normal time that they're aired," says Sveinson. "It's either streamed or PVR'd. That way, it's on my schedule and it's quicker, because you either don't have commercials or you can fast-forward through them."

Like newspapers and other media entities, TV networks have aggressively incorporated online elements into their content-distribution strategies. Episodes of shows are available for streaming immediately after they air on traditional TV and sneak-preview showings are often made available online before prime-time airdates.

And like newspapers, TV networks have had a hard time finding ways to make their online products pay. The traditional commercial-TV model may be faltering, but it's still responsible for the vast majority of revenue generated by broadcasters and ad-supported cable networks.

"Despite what you might be hearing, I believe the meat and potatoes (for broadcasters) is still (viewers) watching it on television," says Berman. "That's the main revenue source -- not just watching when it's on, but also watching on DVR (which is now calculated into TV ratings). Watching online is secondary, and it's building rapidly, but remember -- even the most popular show online is not going to attract the size of audience that a show is going to get on a broadcast network or cable. You're not going to have 13 million viewers watching (CBS's summer series) Under the Dome online. That's just not going to happen."

As the financial pressure mounts, new models are emerging. Under the Dome, a 13-episode adaptation of a Stephen King novel, premiered on CBS (and, in Canada, on Global) last month. As part of an innovative effort to maximize the series' revenue potential, the network sold its digital rights to Amazon.com, which makes episodes available to its customers online within a couple of days of each week's broadcast.

"Someone emailed me and asked what it means that it's on Amazon now," says Berman. "Will it hurt CBS's ratings when people figure out that it's online?

"My answer is that (the series premiere) got more than 13 million viewers (in the U.S.); I don't think it's going to hurt if anybody goes to Amazon.com and watches it there. It's only going to bring more eyeballs to the table. But what it shows is that if you're a network, you can't just think about running a show in a time-slot once a week. There's so much more to it now, and you kind of have to figure out a way to do it (online) while still keeping your audience intact on the network.

"You don't want to cannibalize the audience that's watching on the network, but you must realize that there are other ways now to present your product."

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said the online-rights deal was essential to getting Under the Dome on the air.

"We wouldn't have done Under the Dome unless we knew we had it backed up 100 per cent by the Amazon deal, and combining Amazon with (the series') international-syndication deal makes Under the Dome profitable immediately," he said.

The online migration:

With a new generation of consumers accessing "TV" in different ways, the industry had to respond. It's no longer just a matter of repurposing existing TV shows for online viewing. Instead, major players in the television industry have begun to recognize the possibilities presented by producing original TV-style programming for an online audience.

For Robbins, the "Aha!" moment came during a family vacation with his two teenaged sons.

"We were in Miami... staying in a hotel room that had a huge flat-screen TV on the wall and a Mac monitor on the desk," recalls Robbins, 49. "Day one goes by and they want to watch highlights of NBA action, which they do on the computer. On day two, they want to watch The Simpsons, so they're on the computer. So now I'm thinking, 'Are they really not going to turn the television on?'

"And they didn't -- five days go by, and they never turn on the TV. And this light bulb goes on in my head: This is the future, except the future is now."

Recognizing the opportunity created by the shifting habits of young consumers, Robbins created AwesomenessTV, a YouTube channel specializing in entertainment and sports content -- including original scripted series such as The Runaways -- created for and by teenagers.

"The beauty of YouTube is that you have international distribution on day one," he offers. "That's a big deal, because you're reaching an awful lot of people right off the bat. Now, you have to be discovered (on YouTube), but if can get discovered, you're going to reach an awful lot of people."

Last year, the creator of TV's most successful franchise of the past decade -- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its various spinoffs -- made a bold move into the online world. Anthony Zuiker teamed with Yahoo! and antivirus software giant Norton to produce Cybergeddon, an ambitious cyber-crime-themed thriller that was released online last fall by Yahoo! on the same day in more than 25 countries worldwide. The 90-minute drama was released as 10 nine-minute episodes spread over several weeks.

"This movie is necessary because of the behavioural shift in how we consume content," Zuiker said before Cybergeddon's debut. "We are stepping forward to make sure we're trailblazing, (breaking) new ground."

Over the past couple of years, an increasing number of online content providers -- led by Hulu, Amazon and, more recently, Netflix, have stepped up production of original scripted programming. Netflix garnered a lot of positive attention earlier this year when it released the political potboiler House of Cards, but it was the long-awaited and heavily hyped revival of Arrested Development that thrust Netflix's original roster -- and, by extension, all created-for-online scripted fare -- into the spotlight.

Berman, who recently attended The Cable Show, a massive cable-TV industry conference in Washington, D.C., says everyone in the television industry is watching the online-programming trend with great interest, and perhaps also a little bit of apprehension.

"I think there's a lot of excitement and anticipation about this," says Berman. "I think the cable networks are looking forward to having other ways to attract eyeballs, and this is also a way for a show like Arrested Development to get a second life. I think there's also a little concern, because people don't know how to analyze what's happening -- take Arrested Development, for example. How did it do on Netflix? Was it successful? Was it good? Was it bad? Was it a good idea to do it? We don't know.

"People are excited by the possibilities, but I think there's also a bit of fear out there. It's very different now -- if you're a cable network or a broadcast network, how do you best present your product without being cannibalized somewhere else? How are these shows doing in these other forms? We simply can't analyze that yet. So I think there's a combination of excitement and concern."

Berman adds the frenzied pace of change in the on-screen and online-entertainment world makes it very hard to predict what even the short-term future will bring.

"It's very hard to say. If someone had asked me five years ago what was going to be happening now, I wouldn't have predicted this," he says. "I probably would have said there was going to be more of an online presence, but I don't think I could have predicted that Arrested Development was going to be back on Netflix.

"Five years from now, I still do believe that the main ingredient financially for a network will be when a show airs traditionally... you can either watch it when it's on or DVR it. That is still going to be the main revenue source, but I also think there are going to be many more original programs on cable.

"I think what's going to happen in the next five years and beyond is that you're going to see a lot more A-list actors turning up online -- big-name talent doing shows that are online only, and that will bring a lot more attention to the online landscape. I think you'll see much, much more original programming online and much bigger names appearing in it."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 D8

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