The Beginning of the End of TV

It looks as though the other shoe has dropped. At least one television
studio — ABC — has caved to pressures from illegal file sharing
services like BitTorrent and is now selling commercial free programming

Episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost can now be purchased for two
bucks a pop at Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Unfortunately, for the time
being, they’re only available through the US version of the store, but
it’ll spread to other countries soon, no doubt.

I, for one, hail the move. The current model of television broadcasting
sucks, if you ask me, and is in bad need of a major overhaul.

I reached this conclusion just the other day, as I considered my weighty bill from Bell Expressvu. I was struck by the fact that I pay over $50 every month for what amounts to one television program episode a week (Everwood), some baseball games, and irregular access to the CBC. The rest of the stuff that might stream down through that ugly dish on the side of my house is just tripe.

By rights I should get our national broadcaster for free; if there were a decent signal in town, I’d be content with just that. Baseball I could get online through, and I wouldn’t have to maintain a subscription in the off season like Bell requires.

But that guilty pleasure of mine that airs every Thursday at 9 on KTLA, that’s what I’m after and that’s why I pay the man his money. It irks me, but that one hour a week makes it all worth it. Barely.

Friends urge me to hit BitTorrent and download the episodes. Copyright and other legal concerns aside, yeah right. Like I have that much time to waste finding something and then waiting an eternity for it to download over ten thousand other peoples’ crappy internet connections. (BitTorrent content isn’t downloaded from one source, but from a variety of other users’ computers across the internet, a technical feat which muddies the legal waters of the activity.)

So the news this week that iTunes downloads of TV programming was a reality brought
such a sensation of joy that I very nearly called up Bell and told them to stuff that satellite dish where the sun doesn’t shine. For a pale, shimmering moment, I could see a life without a cable or satellite TV subscription.

That day will come, probably in the next year or so. Be still my beating heart.

My own petty elations aside, this is certainly a watershed moment for the entertainment media industry. It is the beginning of the end of TV as we know it.

Which is why the move is so surprising. Television studios are historically cautious about adopting new modes of operation, especially when they involve the sea change of a delivery method. Why do they want to start the shakedown now?

As with music, erosion of the television market is being naturally facilitated by digital media. The studios have to do something before they lose it all to the internet.
Studies demonstrate that illegal file sharing of television programming on the internet is on the rise dramatically. Some suggest it has grown over 150% in the last year. The folks doing the digital thieving are the studios’ prime target market, to boot: young, relatively affluent, and tech savvy. If advertisers decided that the broadcast realm was not where the party was, they might just split.

So the studios don’t have a choice, they have to take the party elsewhere.

Admittedly, it is only two major shows that are available now. But it’s a foot in the door.

Apple invited just ABC in on this first venture so the limited content shouldn’t be too surprising. As the other networks hop on board, available content will grow.

What’s particularly interesting is the way the iTunes Music Store is becoming the target confluence for modern media. TV is just being added to a melting pot of radio, music, audio podcasting, video podcasting and audio books. For the time being, each of these types of media are remaining segregated from the others.

But as, say, video podcasting takes off, how will we define the difference between commercial television content from a major studio and basement-produced fare? How will we tell a broadcaster from a podcaster?

The lines are certain to blur as the iTunes Music store pushes the boundaries of what we consider entertainment media. The next question is, how will we consume it? In conjunction with the updated iTunes, Apple released a new suite of iPods and iMacs that are capable of playing back video that’s been purchased online.

The implications of that level of integration between devices and content are too complex to examine at this point in a column. Suffice to say for now, we live in interesting times as far as the media is concerned. Prepare for massive change.

First published in the Yukon News (new web site) on Friday, October 14, 2005

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