Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cable Networks 2.0 (or 3.0)

The cable network model that we all know, which was based on the broadcast television model that we all know, is this: A centralized organization acquires programming, schedules and distributes it to affiliates (broadcasters) or cable operators. The network produces some of its own programming (or most of it, if it's a news or sports channel), but it acts primarily as an aggregator, scheduler and dsitributor.

It was a wonderful model for 1925, or 1949, but it's completely obsolete today. It was based on the technical limitations of the dawn of the radio and television eras, limitations that no longer exist. It was effectively impossible to have a two-way conversation between media creators and consumers prior to the Internet and broadband speeds. Now, we've got the means for that two- (or N-) way dialog. The cost of production and distribution is a tiny fraction of what it was even thirty years ago, which was in turn far less expensive than what was being done in the 1960s. YouTube...well, you know all about YouTube, and Vimeo, and Dailymotion, and, and...

My point is that the one-way, centralized network model is obsolete. I don't believe that a new, one-way network will be successful. Future cable networks will have to bake an open, two-way model into their architecture from the very beginning. What does that mean?

It means that the network becomes more of a curator than an all-powerful programmer. It selects and makes available content from external producers, internal teams and viewer/producers (since viewers can now easily be their own producers). It also enables viewers to curate their own programming and make their own selections.

The production process will become far more distributed. Viewers with a few thousand dollars and a high degree of patience can create content that looks as good as anything seen on broadcast television or cable. Field production is simple; it's done thousands of times a day. Studios can be built and sent anywhere. A shipping container can be turned into a perfectly functional television studio. Put it on a fast-and-dirty foundation and you've got a permanent studio. If you want room for an audience, there are a lot of older movie theaters out there being underutilized or gathering dust. Extend the stage, put in LED and fluorescent lights to keep the heating load down, and voila, instant studio!

You may argue that this model has already been tried, at Current, and it hasn't worked very well: Current TV just laid off 80 staffers, shut down production on some shows, and is consolidating two Los Angeles facilities into one. However, the problem wasn't with the production model, it was with trying to fit that model into a conventional cable/broadcast channel. The most-watched shows on Current have been InfoMania and SuperNews: Fairly conventional (from a structural point of view) 30-minute productions that viewers can find easily and that are repeated many times during the week. The bulk of Current's airday has been taken up with brief, four-to-eight minute videos, many of which are submitted by viewers. The problem is that it's been impossible to know exactly what's going to be on when. If you happen to tune in when they're showing a video that's engaging, you're likely to stick around for a while, but if you don't like what you see when you first tune in, you're unlikely to wait around for something better.

The problem with Current TV is that it's programmed from the top down, just like any other cable network, even though viewers contribute a lot of content. Current also has a web presence that allows a more egalitarian approach to programming (in other words, watch what you want, when you want), but with serious limitations: Cable operators prohibit Current.com from running its on-air feed live, or from making programs available prior to their airdates.

That brings me to my last point: The cable network of the future will reside primarily on the Internet, not on cable. So long as the cable operators can dictate terms of when and where programming can be shown, no cable network can become a truly two-way operation. That's why Current is struggling, and why Hulu is only a shadow of what it could be.

In the future, the cable network will be equivalent to the "curated feed", but the open ecosystem will reside on the Internet.

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