Recent discussions have made it clear that downloading shows via BitTorrent is by far the most popular way for Lifehacker readers to watch television. The advantages are obvious and often-discussed, but there's a question that doesn't get asked so often: in a 'Channel BT' universe, how is production of TV shows going to get funded?
Picture by revdancatt
Our recent post about the decline in mainstream TV viewing bought forth a lot of comments, but the overwhelming trend was along the lines of "downloading shows is easier, I can watch them when I like and I can see overseas stuff sooner. Also, TV networks suck." This remark from Warcroft is pretty typical:
TV just doesn't suit today's lifestyles. Personally, having a wife and two kids (3 and 18 months) most TV scheduling doesn't fit into what times we have free . . . Currently, the only channel that lets us (my family) watch what we want when we want is Channel BT. Give me an alternative to that and I'll jump on board. But I'm not going to pay for subscriptions or anything to be able to watch free-to-air programs. I shouldn't be punished because my life schedule doesn't fit into the commercial networks' schedule. They should be working to give me, the viewer, what I want.
The only real restraint on enthusiasm for Channel BT is the existence of download limits and the complexity of downloading, though that's getting easier all the time. The lack of a full-scale commercial alternative a la Hulu^ undoubtedly is also driving people towards P2P downloads. And while iTunes does offer some paid TV downloads in Australia, it doesn't yet work as a way of making people get involved with shows or brands they don't already know, or catching up with shows they've missed. (Foxtel Downloads has similar issues.) We want the convenience of search-download-watch, preferably without cost or hassle.
I'm not interested in stirring up a debate about whether BitTorrent (or P2P or file sharing if you prefer that label) is a useful advance from the point of view of existing media producers, or whether the often heavy-handed legal tactics used against downloaders are appropriate, or how it's all the fault of the commercial networks anyway. The technology exists and will doubtless continue to be used, so embracing it would seem more sensible than fighting it.
But is it possible to embrace it and also make enough money to keep producing TV content? Or do we need to accept that getting more choice of how we watch might lead to less choice of what we watch?
TV can undoubtedly be art, but TV is a commercial art form. Shows require money to develop, cast and produce. At this stage, we've got a great new method for distributing TV content, but absolutely no idea of how that's going to be funded — and without funding, there'll eventually be fewer shows. There are four obvious funding models being experimented with for moving conventional broadcast fully online at the moment, but each has disadvantages.
Ad-supported streaming or downloads
Advertising has funded the majority of free-to-air TV production for years, so why can't it just translate wholesale online? Firstly, technology makes it easy to skip ads on-screen (and torrents usually cut them out anyway). Secondly, TV advertising is built on a relatively localised model: even companies with global reach advertise products differently and at different times depending on the country. The net itself promotes hyper-localism, so global ad budgets seem rather unlikely. Many net users view advertising as entirely evil, but proposals for alternative sources of funding are a tad thin on the ground.
Selling whole series on DVD
Revenues from TV on DVD have grown dramatically, and many shows remain on air (or get a second bite, a la Family Guy) because of the projected sales of DVD box sets. But that hasn't yet translated into shows which can make significant DVD revenue without already having a network TV presence, let alone fund ongoing series (not occasional DVD specials) on that basis. It certainly helps, but it's not the whole solution.
Selling series as downloads
The same arguments apply as for DVD, with the added disadvantage in Australia of grappling with download limits.
Funding channels via subscription or government
This can be done via a government grant (as with the ABC); a licence fee (as seen with the BBC in the UK, and a model once used in Australia); or through paying for a subscription to a specific pay TV channel. All mean a relatively predictable stream of income, albeit one that can vary from year to year.
It's no coincidence that, with iView, the ABC is the most advanced provider of on-demand TV services in Australia, and that Foxtel is also dabbling in this area. However, the political pressures of running a government-funded service mean that no such channel can single-handedly come up with the range of entertainment conventional TV produces, especially if they are also charged with catering for more niche markets. As for pay TV, the relatively small size of the Australian market means that the number of shows it produces will inevitably be fairly small. Fine if you favour quality over quantity, but not everyone does.
Put that together, and you have a bunch of potential minor funding services, but no comparable income stream to the years when TV was the dominant media. I'll say it again: change is inevitable, so I'm not suggesting TV producers should (or could) stem the tide. What I want to know is where they should surf it to.
So that's what has occurred to me on the subject, but I want to know what our readers think. How can the business of TV production best evolve to work in an on-demand universe? Can you honestly say you'd pay to watch everything that took your fancy? What will the future of TV look like? Share your ideas in the comments.