There is a big schism between the people who devoutly consume “industry” or “business” news related to television online and those who simply watch television without paying much attention to how it gets made or how it reaches their eyeballs. But this summer, there have been a few stories that have directly impacted almost all television viewers, no matter their interest level (or lack thereof) in the insider-y matters. AMC’s long-standing—and apparently, never-ending and very snarky—dispute with DISH Network and Viacom’s similar, but shorter kerfuffle with DirecTV removed, even temporarily, networks and shows from many of our cable packages without much notice. That can be tough to handle, and the outcry of frustration over both feuds has been fairly substantial online.
Of course, these battles over carriage and retransmission fees are not new. In fact, they are quite common in today’s television landscape. As are salary disputes, even though the Modern Family cast’s recent threat of litigation added a new, more intense spin to that typical industry tale. (Usually things don't go that far; there might be no-shows at table reads or something, but suing typically doesn't happen... and of course it didn't here, ultimately.) All around the television industry, in corners of the medium’s world that most of us don’t pay much attention to, there is anarchy. Here’s just a short breakdown of a few big things that have been happening lately:
– Multi-screen television viewing, or “TV everywhere” (think websites like HBOGO that require you to log in with your cable credentials to gain access to content) is poised for a big year, say various analysts.
– The Senate is revisiting a 20-year old piece of legislation related to cable retransmissions fees (the fees distributors must pay to broadcasters for their content), which could reshape future scuffles like the ones mentioned above.
– Comcast and the FCC are fighting over the former’s decision to move The Tennis Channel to a different tier on its cable package.
– Abroad, the largest Indian news network has sued Nielsen over what it views as ratings fraud.
I could go on forever, because these sorts of stories, about business matters or the technical side of television viewing, come to light every day. We tend to only notice them when it oppresses our ability to watch what we want to watch in some way—like with the DirecTV and AMC news—but if there is one word that best describes the state of the television industry, from production to distribution to promotion, it is probably "disarray."
Content providers struggle to monetize
In an era where technology makes it unbelievably great to be a television viewer—we can access content on multiple “non-traditional” platforms at basically any time and discuss or share that content with fellow viewers even easier—the people and factions who bring us our favorite shows are still struggling to figure out how this is all going to work, and more importantly, where the money is going to come from.
Network, media company, and advertising executives are still asking themselves how to properly monetize online streaming. In the case of DirecTV and Viacom and DISH and AMC, those struggles are now re-shaping business relationships between cable providers and content providers. And in a related issue, many of these factions are in agreement that the Nielsen ratings are flawed and out-of-date, but no one is especially sure what could replace them, or if current applications like Get Glue or Miso feature the beginnings of the answer.*
* One of the things that drives me nuts about the ratings discussion is that we know next to nothing. You have to imagine that the networks and studios work with the likes of Hulu and Netflix to get EXACT streaming figures that they can then pitch to advertisers in some way as part of a larger purchasing package. They know. We don’t. It's proprietary information, I get that. But let’s stop pretending that the Nielsen ratings are the only thing that matter in 2012.
To be fair, there has been a great deal of technological innovation and economic upheaval in the television industry over the last decade, and those seismic moves are still happening today, as the various news stories linked above point out. While we can all probably agree about wanting to do away with the Nielsen ratings, I struggle to come up with a logical, concrete plan to replace them. The fact that we have DVR-related ratings is a good start.
Still, though, the disarray out there is slowly beginning to impact us more and more. Certain networks like AMC or Comedy Central get removed from our cable or satellite packages. The price of cable is on the rise. Fox has stopped allowing anyone who's not either a DISH or a Hulu Plus subscriber to view its content online the day after it airs. There are always complaints to be found with what can or cannot be streamed on Hulu or Netflix, or purchased on iTunes or Amazon. Yes, these complaints are silly in the grand scheme of “real” important things in the world, but to major TV fans, they exist.
With that in mind, it’s very easy to think about us, the viewers, as the victims. We could view the networks, studios, production companies, and advertisers as petty, money-hungry power-players, screwing us out of access to content we rightfully paid for. However, I regularly wonder if we are, on some level, the architects of our own demise here. Did we cause these problems for ourselves?
What we've done, and what we can do
The increase in piracy and DVR-usage has played a big role in the creation of online streaming channels and portals. If (and I’m obviously generalizing here and not advocating any piracy-related behavior) we were going to steal things or record them for later, ultimately avoiding any of the typical formalities of the television-viewing experience (like watching live, with commercials), the industry had to give us Hulu and work with Netflix, Amazon, and Apple to make television commercially viable again.
Similarly, now that we have those other non-traditional outlets like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, there’s perhaps less of a desire to pay somewhere around $75 a month for cable service. Even if you’re not a pirate and you understand television’s business model, being able to pay a much smaller monthly fee, or even an episodic fee, is very appealing. Cord-cutting, despite the confusion over whether or not it is on the rise, is most certainly part of the contemporary relationship between viewers and television.
And you know what happens when people stop subscribing to cable or satellite providers, and the people who do are likely watching lots of that content on delay anyway (and thus not seeing the ads that were unavoidable during the live airing)? The profit margins decrease for networks, studios, and the cable/satellite operators—which, as you might guess, leads to squabbles over who pays what to whom, and the buck (literally) gets passed back to us, the viewers.
Obviously, this isn’t entirely our fault. We are not all pirates, and we shouldn’t be scolded for using technologies and services like DVRs, Hulu, et al. that were simply provided to us as viewers and consumers. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I find myself feeling sympathetic (in a minor way) to the issues facing the television industry today, and while it is easy to get caught up in how those issues negatively shape or alter my enjoyment of television, I also recognize that the television is always changing and those running it are just trying to keep it going.
I’m not encouraging you to watch all your television live and to never skip through the commercials, or suggesting that you feel sorry for major media conglomerates trying to find additional revenue streams to turn millions into billions. But I do believe that we need to be more cognizant of our place in this multi-faceted process taking place at a confusing time. We as viewers want to have our voices heard and our tastes quantified when our favorite shows struggle in the Nielsen ratings. We should also know, then, that we cannot shy away from the influence our collective action has had on the television industry. There is no real blame here, but we as viewers have it pretty good in 2012, and the things that frustrate us are, at least somewhat, a product of our own choices and habits.