What’s the difference between the decimated hulk of newspaper and CD businesses, and broadcast television? Couch potatoes and bandwidth, probably.
You know the future’s arrived when describing technology from your childhood makes you sound like a 19th Century chimney sweep: “My documents were saved on 3.5 inch floppy disks, which stored less than half a five-minute song. We only had one phone line in the whole house and I made calls using a rotary dialler. And when I was 16 I used to smoke roll ups in pubs.”
That’s how it feels to describe broadcast television in the internet age. It’s amazing we haven’t kicked the habit.
It’s a medium where a quarter of the content is non- targeted advertising. The rest is a mind-numbing 24-hour entertainment spiel over some hundred- odd channels that you can scroll through for hours without ever quite landing on something you want to watch when it’s about to begin.
Right now I could tune into a rerun of a prime time show in which contestants guess the contents of red boxes based on absolutely nothing. The ‘jeopardy’ factor is introduced by a man who looks like the 6th form philosophy lecturer that’s always hitting on students, calling The Banker on exactly the type of phone described a moment ago.
The next channel’s showing non-stop episodes of Ted ‘punch me in the face’ Mosby making 20-minute soliloquies about how someday he’s going to ruin the life of a perfectly nice woman with a yellow umbrella that have me frantically trying to break the safety guards off my BIC razor.
In the meantime, the internet has become a multifaceted thing of media beauty that costs next to nothing to use and has unimaginable depths of content. Looking at the TV guide and choosing something to watch on a Saturday night seems about as relevant as walking into Blockbuster and renting Speed 2: Cruise Control on VHS.
I’m not saying there’s nothing but bad content on broadcast television. Episodic drama, led by the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, has been taken to unbelievable new heights. And I suppose there’s an argument that some people choose to watch the shows from the last few paragraphs, too.
What I’m saying is that broadcast television is a terrible content delivery system. It doesn’t learn, it’s old and it needs to be quietly retired. It’s the John McCain of electronic goods.
We already know what the alternatives are. Streaming services hit another new high-tide point when Netflix announced it has more subscribers than HBO last month, and more TVs are being built to work with streaming services, albeit they still promote regular channels and lack the right kind of interface.
When you have an internet connection faster than 20mbps, there’s no more reason to pay for phone line rental and a satellite package. Everything will come through the same pipe via a platform that’s interactive, on-demand, intelligent and utilises peer recommendation, and your friends will be there to talk to and play with.
When this happens the old gatekeepers like Sky and Virgin will be decimated. Signing up to a satellite provider will make about as much sense as paying for the AOL-content-only internet the now-defunct ISP peddled in the 90s. Existing channels will try to adapt, but most will fail. Broadcast television will go through the same structural change that newspaper businesses are struggling with. They might be able to sell some content and operate big draw live events like the X Factor, but the monopoly will be smashed.
We just need to reach the tipping point in what I’m going to call the Big Pipe Theory (the name comes from a discussion about the future of television and ‘High Resolution Home Graphic Centres’ that took place in the 80s). When enough households are connected, multimedia companies which are building huge audiences online – think Vice and TMZ – will explode. Sure, some will need companies like YouTube to wrap adverts around their content, but imagine what’ll happen when a company like BuzzFeed plugs directly into the living rooms of millions of households. Will Dave really be able to compete?
It’ll take about 10 years, but the coach potato habit will be chipped away piece by piece until the Big Pipe audience gains real traction. Then broadcast television will be all but killed off. In 50 years, explaining a five- channel television to a 20-year-old will be like trying to explain a microwave to a cowboy.
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Words: Christopher Goodfellow
Illustration: Lee Nutland