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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 ( 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?

11 replies on “Will subscription media kill broadcast?”

I suspect that the picture will be a mixed one. Radio broadcasting still exists – but during the peak hours during the daytime, its all live. TV Channels may continue to have clout as channels that premiere expensive non live programmes, and also as marketing machines.
I went to a BBC internal presentation last week on TVOD. The gentleman there was suggesting that broadcast TV would become less like daytime TV not more. And the BBC has won the daytime TV rating wars by going in the opposite direction – more built high quality programmes – so daytime is like peak.

News and sports still need to be watched live, or pretty close to live. For one, you can’t go too long after a game’s been played before you learn what happened and don’t need/want to watch it. And two, yesterday’s news isn’t very interesting. Daily shows like soap operas, too, aren’t very useful if they start to pile up. I can see most episodic television moving to a podcast-like model, but we’ll still need a few channels for news, sports, emergency coverage of important events, etc.
The ratings question becomes interesting at that point. With a subscription model there’s no need to compete against other shows in similar demographics.
Also, when viewers only have to watch what they want, the need for filler content will diminish. I can see a drastic reduction in televised content being a casualty. However, shows with small audiences, like say a show about skeet shooting or model railroading, could do well with clever targetted advertising, just as niche magazines do now. You might not be able to keep a 24-hour golf channel running, because people won’t subscribe to all 24 hours of programming, but you could make three shows and capture 95% of the interested audience.

“more browsable subscribable media derived from the (fairly obvious) lessons of podcasting will replace it”
I’ll add “recommendable”, too. As the number of subscribable media increases, we’ll have more of a need to parse out the ones with most personal value. Not just popularity, not just the CSIs of the world, but the ones in the second tier that get lost in the popularity shuffle.
Recommendation systems will be huge here, I think, as Amazon has shown.

I’m sure the main thing that will happen will be the breeding of new, incredibly virulent advertising strategies. In the short run, product placement will become a lot pushier. In the long run, who knows?
In some ways, I’m already engaging in a really primitive form of this broadcast-less future — I don’t have a TIVO, and I don’t even have a cable subscription. Instead, I rely on Netflix for almost everything I watch. My theory is, if it’s worth watching, it’ll wind up on DVD eventually. (Right now, I’m catching up with the 1990s with Babylon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the second season of Gilmore Girls, but a few newer things are in the middle of my queue.) In a way, what I’m doing is using marketability as an editor for my viewing content (an idea that would have freaked me out 10 years ago) — if it’s marketable enough to sell DVDs, I’ll watch it.
So I rely on recommendations (word-of-mouth and the Netflix star system) and economic forces (availability in this medium) as selection strategies, I suppose.
I have a feeling as online videosharing like bittorrent evolves into more user-friendly forms, finding other ways to parse content will become even more important, yes.

I can’t believe that certain broadcast media will ever die out, for the simple reason that people rely on TV and radio schedules to structure their lives, and without structure in our lives, we tend to feel disorientated and disenfranchised. Can you imagine the outcry if Radio 4 moved The Archers from its 7pm slot? Radio 4 is a national institution, and it wouldn’t be the same listening to the Book at Bedtime while driving to a meeting at noon.
Sure — new, flexible technologies will create the opportunity to listen to things when people want (I mean, the BBC have had the Listen Again facility for several years now) — but I think they will supplement rather than replace broadcasting.

Wonderful post, Tom.
I guess for me, the main question remains (mostly unaswered): Not what’s not going to happen to the product (bigger, smaller, whatever), but how are the people in the industry going to keep their “easy lives” chugging along?
As media evolves, I see the main drama is in consolodation, not change. In much the same way the Catholic Church came up with ever-more bizarre scientific explanations in the Middle Ages to disprove Copernicus. Sony’s recent debacle with DRM is one such example.
Most people want an easy life. And are willing to fight quite fiercely in order to preserve it, as any Shepard’s Bush mortgage holder, let alone big media CEO, will tell you.
Change is easy. Preserving one’s current fiefdom is much harder.

My thoughts were along the same lines as Newfred’s. Sometimes programmed viewing is a social thing (“appointment TV” is a phrase I heard once). We watch X after the pub. I and my partner watch Y every Wednesday night. (Grand Designs if you really want to know.)
Also, I don’t know if I’d really want to watch more than one episode of Spooks, say, in a given day, or week even. I suspect more of our lives than we realise are built around weekly patterns. Soaps are an exception of course. Split programmes like Bleak House or that coastline one are annoying.

Ah but subscription media doesn’t mean you watch them all on the same night – it means you wait for a new episode of a new programme to become available! It’s just as exciting and appointment TV still works in the same way there…

Excellent to have your input on this subject, Tom, as always. It crosses over into areas I’m closely studying at work.
It’s probably more likely to be akin to the effect home video recorders had on the cinema industry — at one point the studios were worried that the VCR would kill off demand for their movies. instead, while cinema attendances have fallen, the market for the studios’ output has grown, not shrunk — but mostly built around the original medium of the cinema, with subsequent sales in other media. Plus, of course, there has been the advent of the straight-to-video market — just as internet and subscription downloads will be able to bypass the traditional access routes in the months and years to come. I think it’s going to be some time before the subscription market is large enough to warrant budgets that can match more mature markets, so for that reason if nothing else the broadcast media will retain the upper hand for some time to come.
What I think is new is that studios are waking up to the possibility of markets they previously thought of as secondary — DVD resales, etc. — as being a means of reinvigorating the main market (e.g., cinema or TV). You only have to look at Serenity and Family Guy to see that.
If anything, it makes me wonder whether the concept of having BBC Worldwide (which resells programmes to other markets) as a separate entity — which critics claim is necessary to preserve a competitive marketplace — really fits in with the way the industry is going.

It’s good to see someone else talking about how the content itself will change in response to the shifts in consumption habits. Isn’t music already changing because of MP3s and ringtones? What kind of content will succeed in this new world? What happens when video based content becomes user centred? I am fairly sure that the result is a galvanisation, forcing niche quality programs AND rubbish, background vuzak (my best stab at a a video version of muzak word-play) to the top. The bland, expensive, middle-ground is most under threat as the market will increasingly plan their viewing around it and budgets will therefore have to flow away from this area

Great post Tom and interesting discussion…
Firstly, when it comes to broadcasting vs. podcasting I belive that they will work in symbiosis. This is because people don´t always now what they want to see. Just as radio where you are able to hear music that you didnt even knew existed, TVbroadcasting will fulfill a role in the first step in exploaration. Demand services will from this point, when an interest is born, take over and provide more specific content.
You mention that the “big search, navigation and media sales companies – Amazon, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!” will have a greater role in the evolvment of podcasting. I agree in this matter when it comes to delivering and organizing the content making it searchable and easy to access. However, I belive that portability and especially usability will also be key factors when it comes to podcasting (and all other media content too).
With portability I mean that You should be able to reach the content from everywhere, i.e. a mobilephone or other portable device using WiFi or other techniques. Usability, meaning that the product must increase the experience that the content is there to deliver.
A interesting concept I just thought of is if you have a GPS together with a podcasting system (rec and play). Then you could walk around for example a city and look at videos made by others on the place you are standing in.
You should see me party!

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