Commentary by Steve Effros
On PBS' “NewsHour,” they're doing an ongoing series on “the future of television.” Unfortunately, as usual, it's more of a platform for different points of view than it is “reporting.” Host Hari Sreenivasan is certainly “interviewing” lots of folks. After all, he's had both the head of Aereo and the head of Comcast/NBCU on recently, but he's still hesitant to actually question what they're saying. Too bad.
It happened again the other night when media “guru” Ken Auletta was on. There was the usual discussion about the “consumer getting what they want” and the assumption that everything is going to be available everywhere and will be in some form of a la carte offering. But when Hari asked the very sensible question of how that business plan would result in enough revenue for video diversity to continue to flourish, as it is now, Auletta and his other guest, long-time New York Times media columnist David Carr, simply didn't answer. They just repeated what they had already said. No follow-up. The question was left hanging, even though the piece was titled “As TV platforms, tastes diversify, where will money come from for quality shows?” No answer was ever given. You could sort of see Hari wanting to probe the real question, but ultimately he didn't.
That's too bad, because it's a darn good question. While the “media giants” are being vilified, once again, for following a business plan that has resulted in hundreds of channels of diverse programming and the opportunity for legions of new writers, actors and producers to get their creations “on the air,” the critics lament that they want a new business plan that throws the entire question of whether that diversity can continue to be paid for up in the air, rather than “on it.”
Sure, it's great if everyone gets just what they want, when they want it, and only pay for their little slice of creativity. But have you looked at the ratings? Pro wrestling and football will do fine. Will PBS or NPR survive? Their programming depends on subscribership. What happens when all channels compete for funding that way? Discovery will be OK, they've gotten to be one of the “giants.” And of course the offshoots of Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS will be fine, they've got lots of cross-promotion capability to make sure folks know where and how to watch them. But what about the others? That's what I had hoped they would talk about. They didn't.
And then Ken Auletta told us all that the “big” guys, the television and cable and satellite guys, are clearly “scared” of this new world of IP and broadband and “TV Everywhere” and Netflix. “They're scared!” He proclaimed. Unfortunately, Hari never asked, “scared of what?”
Auletta is envisioning a world where customers start paying for their own devices to watch video, pay hundreds of dollars for a “smartphone” to use as a remote control, pay premium prices to watch a single episode of something or get an archived Netflix package. Somehow, this is supposed to make the folks who create the most popular programming and those who have the only efficient infrastructure to deliver it, tremble and be “scared.” Scared of what? Maybe it's the consumer who should be scared.
A discussion about the future of television and telecommunications is never ending. The technology moves so fast, it never will. But to get some sense of where it's going, you have to know what questions to ask, and then not be scared to ask them.