We are living in the era of crappy live TV and people are noticing at last. The impending launch of Hulu has me thinking about what exactly it is that makes watching broadcast TV almost unbearable. First, let me clarify that I don't think that the content sucks, just the way that it is served up. I think that I have broken the problem down into three major points: ads, schedule, and attention.Ads
Commercials have long been a point of pain in any TV watcher's experience. They are a necessary evil. Without the commercials, there is no content. However, I think that an advertising model like Hulu's makes for a much more tolerable experience. Standard broadcast TV has a few three minute commercial breaks, where Hulu has short 30 second breaks, with an unobtrusive sponsor logo in their bottom right corner. YouTube uses more traditional web ads and corporate partnerships.
It's obvious that the networks are not going to change their views on broadcast ads and this is part of the reason why so many of us are turning to TiVo or other DVR's as our primary means of watching TV. If a more tolerable model, such as Hulu's, was in place, maybe we wouldn't be so quick to reach for the remote to fast forward.
Advertising is the reason that sporting events are valued so highly today by TV networks. For the most part, people like to watch sports live. Everyone needs to know the result as soon as possible, so they are forced to watch the ads. Such is also the case for the show with the biggest ratings of all time, American Idol. The show has a loyal following and cashes in on advertising because all of those people watch it live. Shows such as Lost don't enjoy that luxury and even though they are popular, they don't have to be watched live. This is where the internet, with its infinitely flexible schedule can help.Schedule
Broadcast TV has owned our schedules for far too long. TiVo helped to show us the way in breaking out of TV schedules. Web video takes it to the next level. We are at the point where you can watch most TV shows on the internet only a day or two after their original air date, regardless of when they happened to be on.
One of the huge problems with broadcast TV is that it is impossible to have something on that everyone likes at all times. When you are actively making the choice on what to watch (as you do with web video), you are far more likely to be watching something that you actually want to be watching. Fixed schedules are dead to me. I think that it's clear, at this point, that we want our content on demand.
There are a lot of things competing for our attention. It's rare that we get time to actually sit down and devote all of our attention to a TV show. As I'm writing this, I've got IM windows open, my email inbox, begging me to go through it, and Adult Swim on my TV. This is precisely why it is so important that when you get quality time for entertainment, you are watching what you want to watch.
Some people attribute the success of YouTube to our attention spans decreasing. I tend to think that people love YouTube because it provides entertainment in short bursts. If you don't like a YouTube video, you probably only lost about 45 seconds of your life, so there is little risk. Full length TV shows, on the other hand, require more of a time commitment.
People don't mind giving a show their full attention if the content is quality. Making shows like Heroes available for viewing on demand, for free, simplifies the search for great entertainment. Our attention spans aren't decreasing, our tolerance for bad entertainment is.
Broadcast TV is alright for a passive form of media. I tend to think of it more as background noise, while something else takes the better part of your attention. I consider watching a show of your choice to be an active form of media since you are actually engaged with the content.Conclusion
I would really like to say that broadcast TV is dying, but it just isn't. Ratings for shows like American Idol tell us that broadcast TV is as strong as ever. Sports are almost always consumed live on broadcast TV and news shows like NBC Nightly News have hugely loyal followings. However, I am seeing a big shift in how we view content that is not time sensitive.
People who are fed up with poor content, obtrusive ads, and fixed schedules are flocking to the internet. Sites like Hulu are our saviors in this age of crappy live TV. The TV networks realize what is happening and that is why they are supporting this reinvention of TV. We are in the era of on demand and more and more people are beginning to see the light.