Answers for Infobae

Pablo Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein recently invited me to answer some questions to be translated for an article in their Digital Life column in Infobae. Here's the English version:

1.     What has been the role of cable television in the transformation of televised entertainment over the past twenty years?

Let me start by saying that these answers are quite specific to the US. It is difficult to speak of television transnationally because of the variation in the availability of internet-distributed services and the infrastructure and wealth required to access it. Only a few countries around the globe were extensively “cabled.” Most received multichannel service by satellite. That distinction has become more relevant recently due to the transition of cable service providers into internet service providers and the emergence of internet-distributed video services—what I’ve called “portals,” such as Netflix.

US cable channels expanded the range of commercially viable storytelling in the US. Because cable uses a different revenue model—receiving subscriber fees as well as advertising funding—it was able find value in creating distinctive television series rather than just those designed to attract the most people. The longer story of how cable channels came to the strategy of creating distinctive original scripted series also offers a precedent for the more recent new distribution technology—internet distribution—and the emerging strategies of portals.

2.     Do you think there is an analogy between the current state of television and the history of book publishing?

There are increasingly many television businesses. Those based on delivering a schedule of programming don’t have the same opportunities as those on demand services that offer access to a library of programs. The history of schedule-driven television offers us few tools for understanding internet-distributed television, and it is also the case that a lot of internet-distributed television is subscriber, rather than advertiser supported—which have different metrics of success that in turn encourage different programming strategies. Looking to the past of US television consequently isn’t particularly helpful for developing theories for internet-distributed television, but the book industry—particularly when thinking about series television—might offer some insight.

So much of our thinking about television assumes the norms of broadcast television, but the possibilities for the medium—its industrial norms, experiencing it, its texts—are much more multifaceted.

Back in his 1995 best-selling book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte wrote, “The future of television is to stop thinking about television as television,” and that provocation is finally coming into practice. Thinking about the future of series television through the lens of the book industry—that of the novel, really—and how they are produced, consumed, and support an industry well after their moment of release helps imagine how the business of series television can work separate from the norms that suited its origins when all viewing was based on a schedule and done live.

3.     What is the role of social media, if any, in organizing television viewing and audiences in an age of streaming and content on demand?

Social media has definitely become an important promotional tool and way that audiences become aware of series and share clips of video. Given the other changes in the industry—such as the fading of the schedule as the primary organization of television shows—social media and its ability for people with similar interests to share and discuss favorite shows has become very important as internet-distributed services make available libraries of shows and reduce the extent to which liveness is characteristic of viewing.

We are still in early stages of internet-distributed video so it isn’t entirely clear how to organize all its variations—which things are like, which are different. There is a tendency to assume all internet-distributed video is part of the same industry, but even at this point I’d argue that YouTube is something distinct from portals such as Netflix and Amazon Video. Those portals carefully curate their libraries and pay to license or develop the programming they offer while YouTube is relatively open access. YouTube, consequently, is like other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, even though it distributes video; it engages many of the logics of social media and warrants being theorized in relation to those characteristics. Facebook’s ongoing efforts with Facebook Live and many of the live streaming services are best theorized through a lens of sociality. But social media is not a central aspect of portals such as Netflix or Amazon Video that function more as a new distribution technology for legacy media industries based on developing and circulating intellectual property.

4.     If you had to make a prediction, what would you say entertainment on television will look like a decade from now?

I suspect the current pluriformity will continue so that linear and nonlinear services co-exist, but that there will be more specialization. A lot depends on internet policy. The elimination of net neutrality provisions in the United States will have significant implications in curtailing the options available and increasing the costs for portals. The AOL/Time Warner merger may be the start of a new round of vertical consolidation that substantially changes the competitive field. If satellite or mobile data can become a competitor for wired home internet access within the decade that would have substantial implications and might create a more competitive playing field. Again, the particulars of these dynamics vary considerably country to country.

As these comments suggest, I suspect infrastructure, ownership, and the organization of the competitive field will be bigger factors in reshaping television in the next ten years rather than it being a period of significant programming change.

5.     What advice do you have for media executives, regulators, and content creators as they think about the future of televised entertainment?

Different thoughts for different groups.

Executives need to think out of the box and reimagine their businesses in ways that ask how the affordances of internet distribution can help them improve the experience of viewers and then develop services that do so. They need to stop thinking about film, television, and “digital” in separate categories and presuming we will ever return to a television environment that was as uniform as the past. Thinking about how new technologies offer tools that allow a diversity of viewer experiences—linear and on demand—and revenue models—advertising, subscription, and public service—is a better way forward. Many of the old strategies—windowing in particular—simply aren’t as effective as they were when the scarcity of a schedule defined video distribution.

Regulators need to be doing more thought leadership and—in conversation with academics—developing more sophisticated understandings of the contemporary competitive terrain. A regulatory regime for internet-distributed services should be established, but these services also substantially disrupt the pre-existing ecosystem, thus warranting reevaluation of whether the regulatory tools used for other distribution technologies still provide the best route to achieving policy aims. All of this will be difficult due to the dominant role of the nation-state in setting audiovisual policy and reconfiguration of global television trade by transnational services. Internet-distribution offers challenges, but also tools that may be more effective in achieving policy goals if regulators are able to take a broad view.

Content creators should continue to push boundaries and challenge all of the existing industry lore that led to such a narrowly circumscribed storytelling environment. The range of distribution technologies and revenue models make a much greater range of content viable. They also need to be vocal about how changing industrial practices affect them and not assume that creative opportunities must come at personal financial cost. It is likely the case that there will be fewer mass hits and thus fewer creative properties that generate the extraordinary revenue that was typical in the past, and the whole structure of the commercial industry must adjust as a result. I’ve heard this described as a transition from a business about “home runs” to one of “singles and doubles” for those familiar with baseball. Many of the underlying financial practices of the industry require adjustment because of the difference between strategies useful for schedules versus those of libraries. It is important to develop ways of compensating creative labor fairly as part of these adjustments.