When Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon at the edge of space this weekend, we may have had a glimpse of the future. Not of the future of extreme sports, although I’m sure we will have more and more “Armchair Felixes” emerge. I’m talking about the future of broadcast television.
More than 8 million people watched the event live on YouTube, making it the most-watched live event in the history of the site. Some viewers even commented that the coverage on YouTube was better than the coverage provided by established news sources like CNN, probably because the production online was direct from the source (Red Bull Stratos) while the networks still felt the need to give more time to their talking heads and less time to Felix. Today’s consumer simply isn’t going to put up with that for much longer.
A weakening grip on the antenna
As consumers, we’re getting comfortable with having more control over our entertainment choices. You can only buy the songs you like from an album (if we buy music at all). Increasingly, you are no longer behind the trend if you wait to see a movie in your home (again, probably not purchasing it) rather than rush out to the theater.
TV is the last bastion of conglomerates dictating your entertainment experience to you, but as Baumgartner’s jump proves, even that is changing. So, what’s keeping you from dropping cable?
Maybe it’s the uncertainty of receiving your local network stations over the air like your grandparents did, reliving the memories of having to bang on the TV to get it to work. Or the prospect of walking a legal tightrope when trying to find something that may not be available in your market, like a certain sports event.
Chances are you know someone who has already made the leap. After all, there are now 5.1 million people who have eschewed the cable companies in favor of broadband solutions like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix while receiving their network stations over the air. Traditional cable companies have lost on average about 750,000 subscribers each year for the past three years. Some of those people (like me) go to competing solutions marketed by Verizon or AT&T. Most, it is assumed, simply cut the cord.
So what does the future of TV look like when cable companies only provide the broadband Internet that allows the majority of homes in America to stream their TV, rather than operating as the middleman between the producers and the consumer? Perhaps the networks, as currently organized, no longer exist as well.
First, what happens to commercials? Does everything we watch live become pay-per-view? Perhaps that could bring even more democratization to the entertainment industry, allowing for what amounts to small-budget, independent TV shows. It also has the potential to turn the NFL into Don King, for better or worse.
The alternative is the sponsors producing content themselves, so that “American Idol, brought to you by Gillette” doesn’t just mean that Gillette wrote a check to Fox. It means Gillette actually pays Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj to bicker at each other. Conveniently, you have to go to Gillette’s YouTube channel or website to watch this week’s episode. That’s very close to what happened on Sunday with Red Bull.
For anything recorded, however, it’s business as usual. Your TV shows are available on whichever streaming service you prefer, except that the only middleman between you and the producers of the show is Hulu or Netflix, rather than NBC or Fox.
Eventually, YouTube’s business model might shift from providing content free with advertising to becoming the Kickstarter of television. If enough people are interested in someone doing something stupid on camera on a regular basis, they pay to finance that person’s channel. Established stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. have already experimented with this model on their own. Pretty soon the experiments will become the norm.
Is this a better world? Ask Red Bull. They just got 8 million people to watch what amounts to a very interesting commercial, not to mention getting live television outlets around the world to cover that commercial. Whether that translates into 8 oz. cans moving off the shelves remains to be seen.
Is this a better world for the consumer? So far I haven’t heard anyone complaining about the commercial-laden football they missed on Sunday afternoon while they were watching that Red Bull commercial.