We Will Return After These Messages

Tech bloggers have been calling for and planning the end of cable TV for years. The first nefarious plot to kill cable was trying to break the bundles and force cable companies to offer ala carte programming. The second effort involved forcing companies to accept consumer devices with separable security in lieu of a company provided cable box. The problem with that plan was that the consumer electronics industry doesn’t want to make consumer set top boxes. Now the plotters are counting on the internet to break cable’s hold on the TV experience by allowing networks to offer content online. HBO recently decided to offer their premium content to internet customers without the need of a cable subscription. If other content providers follow suit, the anti-cable crowd believe this will kill cable TV as we know it. What they fail to acknowledge is that if content providers offer their content this way, it will kill the TV viewing experience all together.

Linear TV has been the model of watching entertainment for decades. Networks have spent fortunes and countless hours planning the lineup to give viewers the shows they want to watch. By necessity, this meant that the shows fell into a schedule to which viewers had to adapt. People planned their week around the TV and when their favorite shows aired. Now we have internet-based on-demand viewing and people can watch whenever and wherever they want. The problem is that this convenience comes with a hefty price tag. Content is not free and it is paid for by airing commercials. Networks quickly realized that the more commercials they could air, the more revenue they could generate. The networks program TV shows for the sole purpose of bringing more viewers to see the commercials. Linear shows have to fit into an hour-long programming block along with commercials.

Typically, the average “hour-long” show is actually only 42 minutes of content with 18 minutes of advertising broken up into 5 or 6 commercial breaks. That means, on average, a commercial break should be no more than 3-4 minutes long. This barrier is being pushed on linear TV. For example, on TNT, the network averages more than 6 minutes of commercials per break on TV and more than that during online streaming. In order to cram more commercials into the TV lineup, the network makes certain edits to the programming for length. Instead of getting 42 minutes of a show, you might get only 39 or 40, and forget about watching a themed intro to your favorite show. They chop those right off or run commercials over them. Once that content is taken online, TNT forces online streaming viewers to watch almost twice as many commercials per break than traditional linear television because there are no time constraints limiting how minutes are devoted to ad content.

Linear television has been surrendering to the onslaught of commercials since the first broadcast, but now there are whole schools dedicated to nothing more than planning and designing ways to get more advertising in front of as many eyeballs as can be. The push away from linear tv such as is provided by cable is not to give viewers more choices, but rather to remove an impediment to running more commercials.

Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) have given viewers control to skip those intrusive commercials. With the click of a button, the viewer can fast forward over anything on the recording, effectively bypassing that ad for Viagra, or the rerun of the Hershey’s kiss bell Christmas tree. With online streaming, you can also fast forward through the show, but not through the commercials. For those breaks you have to watch EVERY single commercial. In fact, some content providers are considering disabling the DVR ability to fast forward through commercials on certain channels.

One industry journal reports that most cable operators are suffering net losses on video customers year to year. Not huge numbers, mind you—there are plenty of people still enjoying linear television—but any gains in customers come from new internet subscriptions. If the internet kills linear TV, count on paying for the ability to watch commercials as becoming the norm. In the movie “Demolition Man,” Sylvester Stallone wakes up after 2 centuries in cryogenic sleep and finds that people are listening to old commercial jingles as the sole source of entertainment.

The thought terrifies me because it’s not too far off.

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