Will subscription media kill broadcast?


I just got chucked a link to some video by Kevin Marks – an early pioneer of the technology that would eventually become podcasting – in which he talks about his time in broadcast as a cameraman, working at Apple and how podcasting changes everything (nostreaming.mov). It’s a fascinating few minutes of video with an interesting thesis – that subscribable media like podcasting removes the need for streaming almost completely.

My perspective is slightly different – both bigger and smaller. Because it’s not streaming that’s most affected by a combination of on demand and ‘deliver it to me’ subscribable podcast-like functionality. The main potential victim here is broadcast itself. Those of us who have Tivos or PVR functionality are already used to the idea that we don’t have to sit in front of the television when something’s being broadcast to watch our shows. And as a consequence, I very infrequently do. I watch things time-shifted by days, or hours or sometimes only by minutes – often pausing a programme at the beginning for ten or fifteen minutes so I can later skip through all the adverts. I reserve the watching of programming live for an increasingly small proportion of shows that necessaily can be watched more effectively live – live news channels or live broadcasts from events.

My sense of the future is that the role of broadcast in the delivery of television and audio programming is going to significantly diminish over the next twenty years, and a more browsable subscribable media derived from the (fairly obvious) lessons of podcasting will replace it (with an individual either subscribing through a net interface or through a truncated remote-control based lean-back experience. And I suspect the people who are going to be maintaining the intermediary platforms for this kind of experience will be the big search, navigation and media sales companies – Amazon, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!. If they have any sense, they’ll find ways to turn their hub status into a platform for a complete democratisation of content, becoming almost neutral intermediaries for large & small companies and creative individuals to put up and distribute their programming as they see fit.

But the most interesting thing is what happens to broadcast in the absence of conventional programming. My hypothesis is that television becomes more like radio. People use radio to time-keep, to feel connected to the outside world around them, to feel like they have company. They have it backgrounded. Along with coverage of live news and live events – where broadcast is clearly the easiest distributor of the coverage – I expect TV to increasingly start fulfilling that kind of topical wallpaper and companionship role. The huge explosion of music channels and news channels in the UK over the last few years seems to bear out the desire for that kind of activity, but I suspect many more ambient, easy to digest, backgroundable media will start appearing over the next decade. In effect all programming becomes a bit like much current daytime programming – topical, conversational, relaxed – a perpetual stream of context-driven and easy-to-digest media. And when people want a challenge, they’ll just try out a new show on demand.

The death of broadcast, of course, has some other really interesting aspects. It’s pretty clear that the content creators – the people with the rights – are going to be the people able to exploit this world more effectively. And they may not need television companies or broadcasters at all to get their content out to the masses – which is likely to put the cat among the pigeons in a few parts of the industry. And then there’s all kinds of other weirdnesses – how do you get people to try your show without just broadcasting it for free? Is there a way you can open up the pilot-making process to more accurately reflect the market? I can imagine a situation whereby companies hold programmes for ransom at the pilot stage – where they wait for ten thousand people to agree to pay to subscribe to the series before they even consider making episode two. And there’s a significant question about where public sector programme-making fits into that space, and whether any of the platforms will be designed for the distribution of media free to people in a particular territory.

Anyway, I’m going to leave it there and open up the subject for further discussion. What do you think the role of broadcast is in the 21st Century? Is it on the way out? How would the market work? And what scope is there for broadcast after on-demand takes over? Anyone got any thoughts?