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Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Last Golden Age of Television

When I was a student one of my neighbors in my University halls of residence popped in with a 3.5inch floppy disk, and told me that on it was a file in a new format called MP3. At the time audio compression was pretty abysmal, and a 3 min song made around a 30MB file. Given that my hard disk at the time was 200MB this didn't make for very feasible digital music. As I listened to that 1.3MB MP3 file for the first time I realised that the world had changed.

One of the reasons that the moment sticks in my mind is that I was continually amazed that this epiphany seemed to be restricted to my Computer Science friends. As the 1990's lengthened I kept coming back to that striking moment, and we wondered when the general public would realise the possibilities, and more interestingly, when the music industry would wake up. The game had changed, had changed radically, existing business models were going to fail, and the companies seemed to be sleeping.

Luckily Apple wasn't, and in 2001 they launched iTunes and saved the music industry.

So who is sleeping in 2009, which businesses are facing a tsunami of change and seem ill-prepared? Well, has anyone watched television recently?

TV viewing figures are dropping. In 2006 Ofcom in the UK released a report showing that fewer young people were watching television, and in 2007 an IBM report showed that in terms of time spent, the Internet now rivaled TV. For a child of the 80's its a weird notion, but when you think about it, is TV dying?

The irony of the question is that we are arguably living in a golden age of programming, much of it coming from the US. Consider shows like Lost, the Sopranos, 24, or the West Wing. But this quality has emerged from a system that is on the brink of failing. For example, in the UK ITV has recently announced serious cuts as its advertising revenue is shrinking.

A recent article by Paul Graham was recently highlighted on Slashdot, in it Paul describes how computers have fatally wounded TV, and argues that this is down to bandwidth, piracy and social applications that have eaten into leisure time. These are all certainly factors, but I would actually place more emphasis on the first two than the last. It is TV-on-demand that has done the damage, and much of it is unofficial or illegal, because the TV companies have not yet got their act together.

For example, I recently I decided to catch up on Lost - I stopped watching at the end of series 3 a few years back, and so I needed to get hold of a copy of series 4, which had 14 episodes, to bring me up to date.

On Amazon the dvd boxed set for season 4 is 34.98 (with blu-ray a ridiculous 44.98). I also watched several disc sets on ebay, and the average price was £26.40, which compares favorably with the price on iTunes of £25.99. However I also checked on the BitTorrent network, and sure enough the series is illegally available as a free 5GB download.

Perhaps the problem here is in a mismatch in the expectations of the buyers and sellers. Media has become temporary. Teenagers delete music after having it on their devices for a few months, something that seems quite weird to me, but then I would do the same with a TV show. Buy it. Watch it. Delete it. Two or three pounds an episode seems rather expensive when you look at it like that.

There are alternative funding models that can work in this temporary digital age, but alarmingly for fans of broadcast television they are not being recognized as important. Product placement was recently ruled out by the UK government as a potential income stream, and there is confusion and disagreement about how the BBC license fee should develop in the future.

There needs to be a much more serious and urgent debate about the future of television. In the UK we need to protect the license fee as its one of the better viable funding models, but it needs to be reformed (perhaps absorbed into general taxation) so that it more accurately reflects the radio and online activities that will form an increasingly large part of BBC effort. Product placement seems initially to be quite obnoxious, but along with show sponsorship it is viable in the digital age and resistant to piracy.

This debate is not about how we allow television companies to increase revenue, its about how we save broadcast television. We also have to face facts that in the future there will simply not be as much money in the industry - change is coming, enjoy it while you can, because this is the last golden age of television.

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