When Time Warner CEO, Jeff Bewkes, proclaimed at a recent London event that "TV is taking over the internet, not the other way round", he may have been displaying just a little bravura. Or was he?
The popular truism for the past decade is that broadcast TV is dead. However, recent earnings from filmed entertainment companies suggest anything but. Filmed entertainment, including TV, is booming, and the share price ticker tells the tale. In 2012, News Corporation was up 43%; Disney and Time Warner more than 32%. And Comcast, which has both the pipes and programming, soared 57.6%. In the UK, even good old ITV handed out a special £156million dividend to shareholders, and started the year with an advertising forecast up 5 percent.
While it's true an increasing number of people are watching video delivered via IP networks, and doing so on a variety of devices, a curious trend is becoming apparent among companies that have been in the vanguard of online video. The YouTubes, Hulus, Rokus and Netflixes of this world are all scrambling to become increasingly TV-like. Some of them even created multi-million dollar presentations for advertisers right alongside the networks in the recent "up-fronts" in New York last month.
YouTube is pouring $150million into outsourcing 100 new "channels" focused on genres from comedy to music, and WIGS, a romance channel targeting women, is backed by another $150million in sponsorship. Meanwhile, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu are investing in developing quite traditional original series.
While the new online video platforms are busy looking for their own home-grown Seinfeld, the fact is that most of what people are watching on their services are shows that have been made famous on linear TV.
I recently had lunch with David Baron, the VP Content Partnership for Hulu. Originally the love child of Fox, Comcast and Disney, Hulu is now officially up for sale, as the partners in the venture look for an exit. Bidders include Yahoo! and ex-News Corp. COO, Peter Chernin.
I asked David where he thought Hulu would be today if linear TV no longer existed. Unruffled by the question, he replied that while Hulu was originally conceived mainly as a catch-up service for shows broadcast by its parents, the exec team always envisaged it as an ultimately independent platform, with its own unique content offering.
Fair enough, I thought, but is this an alternative to TV, or just more TV delivered via a different technology?
Predictably, cable and satellite operators are now embracing consumer friendly features pioneered on the web, such as multi-device portability, catch-up, start-over, on-demand and personalized EPGs. These folks have legacy systems that take some time to shift, but shift they will. As internet guru William Gibson once said: The future is here, it just hasn't been fully distributed yet.
Along with the new features we are starting to take for granted, is the beating heart of TV still to be found in the linear stream? Shows that have moved upstream from online to network - like Recipe Rehab, which moved from You Tube to a syndicated spot on ABC in the US, in order to "aggregate the biggest audiences possible, (...) and allow marketers to communicate with them", according to its producer - seem to be seeking a collective experience with their public that no number of individual "views" can quite replace. And the extent to which social media activity is driven by collective TV watching further debunks the prophecy that TV in general and linear TV in particular is dead.
Having had a ring-side seat at the first internet revolution and survived for 10 years without a TV, you might expect me to be a zealous advocate of everything non-linear. And yet I find myself making a case for the delights (and power) of telly.
For all that ways of consuming TV are changing, I remain hugely skeptical that viewers are going to want to roll their own viewing experience from bits of content randomly floating about on the internet. When the dust settles on the current turf wars between the incumbent cable and satellite operators and the IP-delivered arrivistes, the new line-up of subscription platforms will look a lot like the old line-up, and the meat and potatoes of their offering will still be professionally run channels, with well defined brands, that can engage and hold an audience. If TV is dead, then long live TV.