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Rantmodo: TV Is Broken. Can Anything Be Done?

TV is broken. I don’t mean that somebody’s just put a boot through the screen, although in terms of funding TV production, they may as well have. What kind of fix will actually make sense and keep both TV production flowing and TV fans actually happy?

Image: CGMegee

This series of thoughts was prompted by Friday’s article on George R R Martin’s comments surrounding Game Of Thrones piracy and some of the discussion that flowed from it. In the article, Martin notes that:

“So people are just anxious to see it. I think we’re seeing — we’re still right in the midst of a whole new template evolving for television and film entertainment.”

…and one commenter noted that:

“The simple fact is, it could air a few hours after the US and on FTA TV and it’d still get massively downloaded here for the simple fact that we want to watch ad-free TV when and where and on what we want — unless it’s on the ABC it’s gonna be chock-full of ads and pop-up bullcrap. I’m prepared to pay for such a thing, but until it exists I’m a rabid TV downloader.”

I’m not pulling that quote out to have a specific go at that commenter per se; it’s just that it seems to encapsulate the position of an awful lot of Giz readers, and a wide swathe of the general community as well.

Is TV really broken if we pirate everything?

Yeah, it really is. This is a simple matter of economic reality. TV production is expensive stuff, and while there’s no way that I’m going to say that a given program (or another) automatically deserves to make money — because you get into wacky protectionism issues going down that path — the simple fact is that TV production at any kind of decent standard costs a significant chunk of change.

The figures aren’t easy to come by, but the suggestion is that even something that’s dirt cheap, like, say, a trashy reality TV show costs somewhere in the region of $US100,000-$US500,000 per episode. Something dramatic with sets, lighting, actors, effects and so on easily tips the scales at a couple of million dollars each episode. Multiply that by a 22-odd episode US season, and you’re quickly spending a lot of money to produce a show that may not be a “hit”.

But I buy the box sets after the season is over?

Good for you; I’ve got plenty of box sets of series sitting on my shelf right now too. But box sets are pretty undeniably the gravy, not the main meal when looking at TV from a business standpoint. If you saw a box set of a TV show that you’d heard utterly nothing about peeking out from a store shelf for $50, would you buy it on a whim? It’s unlikely, to put it mildly, and it’s certainly not something that you could build a sensible TV production model around. Even if you did happen to produce a Game Of Thrones style series that spread via digital word of mouth and did very well, the next $44 million or so you dump into the next series would wipe you out — and that’s without factoring in the cost of piracy to the “hit” series at all!

There are undeniably examples of shows that have gone the direct-episodes route — Family Guy and Futurama being the most obvious — that went to a direct DVD sales model post-cancellation, but the simple truth there is that they built audiences on the back of traditional TV exposure.

The traditional TV business was built up around the idea of advertising, both subtle and increasingly less subtle. The reason why TV networks can charge so much for advertising spots is because they can offer up sizeable audiences to advertisers. Pirated shows are without ads, so there’s no audience there, and the position that builds up around “I want it when I want it” doesn’t give time to build that kind of advertising model — and that’s if the show generates enough interest to last that long. Locally, Channel 10 hyped the hell out of The Shire, and social media analysis suggested it would be a hit. However, it shed viewers at a rapid rate. No great loss you may think (and I’d agree), but there’s no way that Ten didn’t lose big money on just that one show. There’s only so long that you can run a business — any business — losing money.

But Aussie TV networks treat the viewers like scum!

This is a tough one to argue against, and I’m not even going to try. Having been an avid sci-fi watcher for many years, there’s nothing more frustrating that networks shifting schedules, holding “important” episodes or simply stopping showing a favourite TV series. I’m not a big sports watcher myself, but I do get that not being able to see big matches, or seeing them on a delay is annoying too, especially in the social media age.

I also get that you can’t please everybody all of the time; there aren’t enough programming hours
in the day to put everything on all at once, and people’s tastes vary. Were it up to me (and I know this won’t be popular), most sports would be relegated to niche channels rather than taking up huge chunks of prime time programming, for example. I know I don’t fit the typical Aussie model TV viewer there, but even then, who does? This shouldn’t be read as a defence of the existing networks per se, because there are problems there a-plenty, and timely delivery of content is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said at the start, TV is broken.

Image: miikkah

So what’s the alternative, smart alec?

Alex, actually, but I’m digressing there. There’s a few models that could be used for TV of the future, but none of them are entirely bulletproof against a tide of “we want it when we want it” thinking. Here’s why.

Model #1: Full VOD, All Of The Time
Why it’s great: The nirvana point of TV delivery, this would bring any program to your TV on demand. We’re kind-of-sort-of-maybe heading in this direction, although Australia is most definitely lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to VOD delivery — and we’d be massively behind were it not for the sterling efforts of ABC’s excellent iView team.

Why it could suck: VOD is great for delivering to niches; while you watch the NRL, I’ll be happily ensconced in a web of sci-fi shows, documentaries, a single reality show guilty pleasure and intermittent bouts of Pro Wrestling. The problem with niches is that they’re niches; small audiences in other words. That’s a tougher advertising sell, which means you either sit through more ads — and more crappy, cheap ads — with everything, or pay a lot more for your VOD solution without advertising to cover production costs.

Model #2: Pay TV is the only TV
Why it’s great: This is what Foxtel does right now, and last week’s discussion had plenty of back and forth on the merits (and drawbacks) of the Pay TV model. It avoids the niche play because you’re paying a lump sum for a lump of TV content, and the less popular channels are propped up by the more popular ones, keeping a larger proportion of the audience happy — at least in theory

Why it could suck: Abandoning a free-to-air model entirely necessarily removes TV as an entertainment source for those on lower incomes, including, for example, the elderly who may use TV as one of their only entertainment options. Pay TV isn’t above the same kinds of scheduling, advertising and repeat strategies that the free to air networks use, either, and you can bet that any popular series would quickly switch to premium packages if Pay TV were the only game in town.

Model #3: Public TV
Why it’s great: The ABC. The BBC. Within those six letters stands a whole lot of the programming that I adore, alongside some exceptionally worthy programming that the commercial channels simply wouldn’t touch. I’m on the record (and will state once again, if anyone from the BBC is listening) as stating that I’d happily pay the UK licence fee in order to get full BBC programming in Australia.

Why it could suck: Not everybody loves the ABC and BBC, and the concept of a mandatory TV licence (as is the case in the UK) would sit poorly with a lot of Australians. I’d rather pay the ABC to do what they do than, say, pay Channel Nine to produce The Footy Show, but it gets good viewership figures, suggesting that there are plenty who wouldn’t do so. State-run TV isn’t without its problems, including the inevitable political interference angle, and it would be all too easy for a disgruntled government to starve a public broadcaster of funds if it felt like it.

Model #4: Pay-Per-Episode
Why it’s great: No ads. This is essentially the current iTunes model. If you want to watch an episode, you pay a few bucks for it and it’s delivered to your viewing device with no commercial interruptions. The program producers get your dollars, and everyone’s happy…

Why it could suck: The iTunes model works because, like DVD/Blu-Ray box sets, it sits on the back of the existing TV model, where existing advertising and networks cover the production costs. Flick over to a purely user-pays experience, and you’re not likely (as a business) to want to fund more than a couple of episodes, and wait for the money to come in. Or in other words, you’d see a lot of pilots, and a lot of series that simply never concluded because the makers ran out of money due to a shrinking audience. Again, this is a niche play, not a broadcast one.


Model #5: Do It Yourself
Why it’s great: YouTube TV, in a word. There’s a lot of really great YouTube content, and plenty of folk who’ve made serious money out of YouTube videos, overcoming the niche audience issues and delivering a lot of great and eminently viewable content.

Why it could suck: There’s a lot of great content, and a lot of utter trash — and sometimes the trash wins out, at least in a flash-in-the-pan kind of way. Nobody’s going to convince me that Rebecca Black’s “Friday” was a great song, but a lot of money was made rather quickly on the back of it. If that’s the future of TV, I’m going to weep, but only after I’m all done puking.

Ultimately, a lot of TV production comes down to the bottom line, and the bottom line is money — and even here, there’s a problem at the consumer end. A lot of the vitriol against Foxtel in last week’s article (and it’s a repeated meme) is that there’s no good “value” for money in a subscription. The problem there is that value isn’t a fixed kind of target, even for something like TV. As a personal example, when Babylon5 was still in production, I watched episodes semi-direct from the US. By “semi-direct”, I mean I knew someone else who got VHS tapes of the episodes from the states, because it took ages for them to air on Channel 7 here. Naughty, yes, but the NTSC VHS tapes were woeful to watch (and indeed, I did wear an onion on my belt and all that), so I purchased the VHS tapes as soon as they were available. Two episodes at at time, and I got excellent value out of them, because I wore those tapes down like crazy watching and re-watching episodes countless times.

Those tapes cost me $30 a piece, and they were great value. Would I pay $30 for two episodes now? No, because that’s not what the market says they’re worth; I’d pay $30-$50 a season instead. Actually, I paid a little more than that for each season when they hit DVD, and again, I’m happy with that value. But that value isn’t, say, the value that somebody on a lower income elsewhere in the world might put on it; a $30 box set would be unobtainable if your income was $1 a day. Equally, even if prices dropped, a “reasonable” price to some could (and, I’d say, based on the amount of piracy around things like cheap apps, I’d say would) quickly become “too expensive” for some.

tldr; version: TV is broken, but there are no easy fixes.


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