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Let's Praise (Not Bury) Linear TV

Last month, I attended the national SMPTE technology conference in Los Angeles and was struck by some of the comments in one session.

The panel, an eclectic mix of producers of various television shows in the sci-fi genre, discussed the future of branding and storytelling in the new age of multiple distribution platforms. Given the new world of the “give it to me when I want it” style of programming, which is at the forefront of nontraditional distribution models, the traditional linear world of broadcasting, it was argued, will soon see its demise.

As I pondered that comment, I smiled and flashed back to similar false prognostications about our industry. I'm old enough to remember the “death of the sitcom” prophecy well before Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends garnered huge audience numbers across all demos. That prediction, it seems, rears its head every few years.

Similarly, when cable nets began making inroads into broadcast network market share in earnest in the 1980s and '90s, some prognosticators predicted the demise of the network affiliate. Broadcast networks, it was argued, could simply form their own cable channels and distribute their programming without the need for affiliate stations to carry it for them terrestrially. Twenty years later, local terrestrial broadcasting is still the backbone of the networks and serving its audiences, which continue to have a strong attachment to their local newscasts.

Today we look out to an ever-changing distribution landscape, with no shortage of new channels to carry programming content to the masses. The 2008 apocalyptic corollary to earlier theories of broadcast television's demise is that given the fact that mobile, Internet and IPTV all hold the promise of virtually limitless programming on-demand, how then will broadcast ever compete given its linear nature?

Networks could make all their programming online in one huge repository and deliver it in high resolution through their Web portals. Makes sense, right? No affiliate network to maintain. Less costly distribution. Full programming on-demand to satisfy the masses.

This prediction, however, fails to incorporate some basic premises.

First, the traditional linear television model is ideal for an event-driven medium. News and sports will, by their very nature, always be event-driven.

Even the premiere of a new program or new episode is perfectly suited for a linear model. It creates a sense of community where we can all participate and share the experience at the same time. There is a sense of anticipation that builds promotion—and ignites the water-cooler conversations at work the next day—and gives the show “legs.” Even the serial nature of daily soaps creates a community of viewers that sets its routine around that schedule.

Second, the networks spend millions on marketing and promotion for their programming, which draws audiences to their shows. It is this promotion that gives the program the exposure to gather new sets of eyeballs across the other platforms. Without this investment, how many shows could draw the kinds of audience numbers that will allow them to succeed on mobile or the Web?

The “on-demand” experience that we all want is not inconsistent with retaining a traditional broadcast model, because the same objective can be achieved on the back end of distribution. With the increasing power within the set-top box, the costs of storage and servers decreasing daily, and computing horsepower increasing exponentially, we are not too far from a time when broadcast television programming could be stored within the home or at the headend as it's being broadcast. Given the appropriate rights access, cable or satellite providers will be able to provide a total on-demand experience to their customers, including programming from the broadcast networks. We are starting to see the beginnings of this as some operators have begun allowing consumers to access broadcast series via VOD models on a limited basis. (Comcast, for example, is now offering this service with CBS programming.)

Back in the early '90s, John Hendricks introduced a service called Your Choice TV, whose goal was to provide this total on-demand option in a very linear world. Hendricks was years ahead of his time, but the concept was sound. Complementary services via both the traditional linear broadcast model and the VOD model would be offered by the service, ergo “your choice.”

This in no way infringes on the advertising model, as local cable operators could simply provide a viable means to prevent fast-forwarding through commercial spots for first-time viewing. This would only serve to increase ad exposure by allowing those who missed the episode to “tune-in” when they desired.

I would argue that alternative channels of distribution—rather than being a danger to the linear broadcast model—serve to provide more promotion and introduce shows to new audiences. I can attest to getting hooked on Lost only after watching the catch-up episodes from seasons one through three on the Web before joining the rest of the groupies on ABC for season four. Had the past episodes not been available to me online, I would not be among the millions today anxiously awaiting the premiere of season five.