The Futurist: Why New Technology Means Better TV

As a general rule, journalists (particularly us of the tech stripe) go gonzo when trying to proclaim something a new “trend.” We take one example of a hit YouTube video and proclaim it to be the death of TV.

The stories are usually the same: Lead with an example of a internet video that became part of the geek cultural canon (take the anti-Hillary Clinton/Apple “1984” mash-up video, or perhaps the whole Lonely Girl15 thing), talk about how this sort of thing wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, and proclaim the death of the boob tube. The tube may be sick, but plasma and LCD are to blame—not the Interweb. Cell phone-bound videos, Tivo, iTunes, and anything else that “changes” the way people watch Heroes isn’t either.

In fact, the sound of a thousand people logging onto YouTube and watching SNL clips on iTunes isn’t the sound of TV’s funeral bells, but rather the best thing to happen to the medium since the remote control, and, in the end, almost certainly means higher-quality programming.

To understand this, let’s first take a look at streaming cell phone-bound video. Until now, mobile video in this country has been next to useless. It clogs up data lines, is overpriced, and actually keeps you from taking and making calls in many cases. Of course, the new service being launched by MediaFLO could change this, but for now — next-to-useless.

And when MediaFLO gets their act together, it will be impossible to view them as a threat to regularly-scheduled programming for a simple reason: it IS your regularly-scheduled programming. Most of the content is simple pint-sized feeds of Comedy Central and MTV, beamed at the exact time they’d be airing in your living room, ads intact.

Now lets now look at officially-sanctioned web-based TV streams.

ABC made waves about a year ago when they declared that they’d offer some of their hit shows (I bet Lexus-Nexus search from the time of the announcement would reveal that nearly every single news story on the topic cited just Lost and Desperate Housewives, as if they were the be-all, end-all of TV programming). The key selling points: a day after their original air-date, you can watch the shows on demand from any web-enabled computer, with only a fraction of the advertising breakage found during their original airing.

As it is now, this technology poses absolutely no threat to the scheduled airings and, if anything, will only help push viewers towards them. The key lies in what I call the “Melrose Place Phenomenon.” When it comes to serial drama and soap operas, it is imperative that a dedicated viewer catch every single episode, otherwise, how will they know what’s going on in the hatch in Lost? Miss a single episode or fail to tune in from the beginning, and it is you who is lost, lost, lost (at least until the DVDs come out.) Miss enough episodes, and you tune out for good.

The online programming is a bit choppy, confined to tiny computer monitors (for the vast majority of users), and doesn’t approach the quality of watching the show (in HD or not) on a nice plasma. It is, quite simply not a pleasurable experience.

What it is, is a way to keep updated in the latest happenings in your favorite shows. By making the programming available online, viewers are able to maintain their addictions without missing out. This is absolutely necessary for keeping ratings high on serial dramas. Once they’re caught up, they can tune in next week at the regularly scheduled time, and actually enjoy themselves.

What About YouTube?

And what about YouTube and similar video-streaming sites? They are about as big a threat to television as the cute little kitties that populate half the site. YouTube is watched by guys trying to kill time at work, 40 seconds of Macaca moments at a time, not as a substitute for high production-value mainstream programming. You’d have to be a trends writer looking desperately for a story to think otherwise.

So What’s It All Mean?

Alright fellows, add this to the obvious bin: Networks need to loosen up and realize that increased viewership through alternative channels means increased awareness of their desired channel (that is: whatever time TV Guide says it’s on). In previous years, a show’s timeslot was more important to whether it lived or died than anything else. A great show relegated to the Saturday night graveyard was doomed, while a laughtrack-infested crapfest that followed Friends was a surefire hit. Increased opportunities for people to watch network programming does not mean that TV is dead, but rather that GOOD TV finally has the chance to survive. If somebody is out on a Friday night and misses a show, they can simply watch the recording on their DVR or stream it off the network’s Web site. And in that regard, we, the quality connoisseurs, are the winners.