Lost in Translation has covered how TV viewing habits have changed since Philo Farnsworth created the cathode ray tube TV in 1927. Television has gone from a three-to-five local over-the-air channels to the Big Three networks and PBS plus local indies to cable bringing in distant channels clearly to Pay TV and having fifty-seven channels and still nothing on, to now with the infinite channels. There’s the rub.
In the past, viewers just needed a television. Sure, at one point, TVs were luxuries, but they became an appliance much as a washer or an over. Televisions replaced radios and fireplaces as the place families gathered in front of. As the cost of TVs came down, it was possible to have a spare one in a bedroom for late night viewing. Add in the silicon chip, broadband Internet delivery, and the decreasing costs of computers and even cellular phones with increasing capabilities, it is possible for the viewing audience to have multiple ways to view content.
Naturally, content providers expand to take advantage of the new capabilities. Cable had tiers of service, but audiences just needed the one provider. In many areas, there wasn’t a choice of cable companies due to how the signal was delivered. Cities that had multiple providers often had a physical separation between the areas covered. Take Ottawa of the Seventies and Eighties; the city had two providers, Ottawa Cablevision and Skyline Cablevision. To choose one over the other meant deciding on which side of the Rideau River to live on. The two services had separate cables underground to deliver the TV signal, so each provider had a slightly different line up of channels. Viewers still had to pay the cable bill, but the signal was clear.
With the Internet becoming as necessary as a phone line was in the past, new ways of delivering content came about. Netflix, originally a mail-order DVD rental service, saw that streaming over the Internet could be lucrative. The company was right. Its main competitor, Blockbuster, didn’t make the change over, leading to the demise of the video rental powerhouse and leaving Netflix alone in the field. Netflix started with just providing the movies it was renting through mail-order, but expanded to become a creator as well, with notable series such as Stranger Things, the One Day at a Time remake, and Blazing Transfer Students REBORN.
With the success of Netflix, everyone wants their own streaming service. That’s already bad news for Netflix. Amazon is just a competitor here, trying to get access to the same content Netflix has while creating their own. When content creators get into distribution, the usual middlemen get cut out. In this case, with Disney and CBS having their own streaming services means content that Netflix has now may not be available in the future. Disney’s streaming service, Disney +, is going to have Disney movies and not just the animated works. Disney owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Studios and Star Wars, a huge draw that can suddenly go exclusive to just Disney +. CBS All Access has every show CBS owns, including Star Trek: Discovery, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and Elementary. NBCUniversal is planning on its own streaming service.
As it stands right now, Netflix is joined by not just Amazon and CBS, but Hulu, Sling TV, DirecTV, Playstation Vue (and Playstation is planning on getting into film and television productions), and YouTube TV. If other studios and networks start getting into the streaming game, it’s going to get harder to find the gems. As it stands right now, word of mouth is the most effective way of a production getting known. Audiences won’t be able to afford every streaming service available. YouTube TV costs $40 per month, and another $10 per month for YouTube Red and its original works. Few people can afford all the streaming services, and no one has the time to watch them all.
The result will be a balkanization of television. Audiences will be split, trying to find the streaming service that provides what they want without too much cruft. With audiences split, advertisers have to work out where their targets have gone. In the old three-channel universe, once ratings came out, it was easy to find what a demographic was watching. Recorders, video or digital, allowed audiences to skip ads, leading to new techniques to get the message across. With subscription fees, though, audiences may not be as tolerant of ads as in the past. The problem there is that advertising paid for shows’ production. Subscription fees may not cover the full amount.
To illustrate the effects, let’s take three popular TV series and the viewers for their last episodes. M*A*S*H, with “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (airdate 28/02/1983), had 106 million viewers, a record broken by the 2010 Super Bowl and not matched by any TV series. Seinfeld‘s finale, “The Finale” (airdate 14/05/1998), had 76 million viewers. The Big Bang Theory‘s last episode, “The Stockholm Syndrome” (airdate 16/05/2019), only had 18 million viewers. M*A*S*H came from the end of the three-channel universe, just as cable television and Pay TV was starting to catch on. Seinfeld saw an expansion of offerings plus recording technology allowing for time-shifted viewing. The Big Bang Theory comes from the expansion into the infinite channel universe, where there is heavy competition for attention. The numbers “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” saw may never happen again outside special events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. There may be more viewers now than in 1983, but there’s also more choices.
The challenge for television today, as it has been since the industry started airing, is to find an audience. Advertisers want viewers, too. If they can’t find any, they’re not going to buy air time. No ads, no money for production. At the same time, because of the sheer amount of choice now, all TV content creators, traditional networks and streaming services alike, need to create content that will draw in audiences. While streaming services have access to a number of second run and syndicated series and movies, if one starts creating original content or adapting new series, like Amazon and Good Omens, then the others will have to follow just to keep pace.
As the balkanization happens, audiences aren’t going to keep up. Much like cable in the Seventies and Eighties pulled together a number of stations and subscription channels, there’ll be room for a service that curates the disparate streaming services for audiences. Internet service providers have filled this role before, but as the smaller ISPs have been swallowed by the bigger ones, they’re now adding their own services, adding to the balkanization.
Then there’s the indies. Smaller studios who would normally be shut out can now carve a niche online, getting a small but wanted audience. While not a streaming service, these indies, including fan-creations, will just add to the fragmentation of television. The wide range of choice is a blessing for indies, a chance to compete with the majors on a playing field getting levelled.
As the balkanization grows, the best hope an audience has is word of mouth and happy accidents. There’s not enough time to watch everything or even everything that looks interesting. Each member of the audience has a different definition of “interesting,” too. There’s no more catering to the lowest common denominator. The audience is fragmented, just like television. TV has to provide compelling programming to remain competitive with all other forms of entertainment.