Television in the Internet Age
On the surface, things would seem to be much more difficult for the television industry. Entertainment has become diversified. Between the ever-increasing number of specialized channels, video games, and the omnipresent Internet, the last two decades have been a constant movement away from a world where the culture was dominated by the major networks.
The Internet isnt just a competitor for time with television; it frequently tries to subvert it. From the snark filled recaps on
Television Without Pity to TV Tropes explaining all of the tricks and plots that shows like to use, it becomes harder for television to get away with weak plots. At the same time that there’s pressure to improve the shows, it becomes harder to make money on them. In the same way that the Internet has made it easy to get music without having to go through the tedious process of rewarding the artists who created it, it is trivial to download episodes of shows without those pesky commercials to pay the bill. While that’s not an issue really with domestic television – most people already really think of television as being free (even as they pay for cable) so the immediacy of watching the shows trumps the annoyance of watching the ads – but it does affect the international audience. When Doctor Who airs 5 months earlier in the UK than it does in the US, it becomes harder to resist going to your local bit torrent site to get it.
The pressures conflict. The profit upside is reduced at the same time that people are becoming more critical of the medium. While that could be a complete disaster, the short-term result could have come out of a Libertarianism textbook. With increased competition for attention, the networks have responded by creating some of the best programs the medium has ever seen. Even cheesy shows like Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica have been reinvented as complex dramas with elaborate story arcs.
While it’s great that TV has risen to the challenge that the net provided, the influence doesn’t end there. Shows are using the web to expand beyond just the hour a week that they air. Heroes has a weekly comic book that expands upon the background of the characters. Both Heroes and Lost had online games to make the experience a little more interactive. Moreover, it seems like every show has at least one or two characters with a Myspace page.
While it’s tempting to do so, it’s dangerous to compare media. Just because something works for one doesn’t mean it would work for everything. Still though, the difference between the way the music and television industries have reacted to the Internet couldn’t be starker. One has embraced the net and the other has fought it every step of the way. That’s not the only reason why the music industry is in trouble while television seems to be entering a golden age, but it does make me wonder what would have happened if the RIAA had tried to find ways of coexisting. Maybe the downloading crisis would have played out differently. While it might be too late to make a difference – even bands like Phish who embrace the net have been having issues with illegal downloads – it’s not too late to give it a chance. See if you can’t follow the example. At this point, what really do you have to lose?
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.