Kill Your Television

Not like this is new news, but every day I’m reminded more and more that traditional television (and with it, traditional advertising) is dying.

For me, it started around 2002 with Netflix, which killed any need I had for cable TV. Why pay for HBO or Showtime when I could rent The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City and gorge myself for hours in one sitting? The years since then have produced an avalanche of other factors. This past year, an EyeTV and an HD antenna on our roof meant that my husband and I could snag HD-quality shows off the airwaves, record them to a MacMini (hooked up to a projector) and watch them whenever we felt like it. Add ABC and NBC’s websites (and my discovery that the Firefox extension AdBlock Plus zapped ads inside the ABC episode player) and there was no reason at all to give a rip about stupid ol’ networks and their stupid ol’ commercials.

Hulu sealed the deal, allowing me instant access to shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (not to mention discovering oldies-but-goodies like The Bob Newhart Show and full-length films like Ice Age for my kid). While they have ads that are immune to the powers of AdBlock Plus, they are relatively unobtrusive and don’t require any “click to continue” nonsense. The frosting on the cake is the growing number of self-produced and online-distributed shows like 3Way and We Need Girlfriends, the latter of which has been picked up by CBS. (We can only hope it enjoys a better fate than the pile of suck called Quarterlife, which NBC picked up and then promptly dropped when it suffered worse ratings than the XFL.)

And how about the glorious day when I discovered Best Week Ever was a free podcast that I could sync to my iPhone along with TV shows I had purchased from iTunes? I haven’t experienced a boring airline flight since.

And yet, with all of that, the networks seem to be in utter denial about what’s happening. The CW made a huge gaffe this year when, in an attempt to “force” more viewers to watch Gossip Girl on the network, they decided not to make post-strike episodes available on their website. Presumably, this decision was made to get better ratings: the show was crazy popular on the CW site and iTunes, but not on the dusty old television. Surprise, surprise, pulling the full episodes from the site had almost no effect on ratings. After tasting the freedom of watching a show online whenever you felt like it, who the hell was going to sit down on the date and time the network decided and watch it on TV?!

Their decision was understandable in the sense that nobody seems to have figured out how to monetize online entertainment in the same way that they have on broadcast, and the CW presumably makes less when I buy the episode from iTunes than if I watch it on TV where they can sell ads. But how long can that last? Viewers aren’t flocking back to television; they are (like me) tossing their TVs and snuggling up to their computers.

So, my big question — and maybe some media buyer out there can answer this for me — is why? How can this not translate into better revenues for online advertising, or some new model for monetizing the distribution of online entertainment? Especially considering how damn trackable and relatively cheap it is compared to a TV commercial? At some point, won’t the old model crumble under its own weight? And can’t we come up with something better than just aping the existing broadcast model of interrupting the show with X-second spots?

While I love to pick on the ad industry (and bite the hand that fed me: I was raised by a copywriter and a print project manager), I don’t argue that there has to be a way to pay for this entertainment. I’m willing to watch ads if I’m getting a show for free (except during Lost. Sorry, ABC.), and I’m willing to pay iTunes to have Mad Men at my fingertips. I’m not the kind of girl that has illicit late-night encounters with BitTorrent. But — all that being said — advertisers need to find a way to reach us without assaulting us (I’m looking at YOU, movie theaters! I paid for my damn seat, don’t make me watch a car commercial before the show. Or how about TBS and their ridiculous “pausing the show for an ad” trick? See, that’s what drives us into the arms of AdBlock Plus whenever we have the option!) and consumers need to be realistic about their expectations around what is free.

But, I know that it’s unlikely any of this will change. The genie is out of the bottle: I have to read ads in bathroom stalls and my neighbors are all trading pirated files on Limewire. But, it sure would be nice if we could call a truce and allow more on-demand access to entertainment while also fairly compensating the businesses and people that create it. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy insane Nissan product placements while watching Heroes on and wait for this all to shake out.

UPDATE: Well, well, well. I was listening to MPR over the weekend and On The Media had a story about this very topic!

“…the most ambitious aspect of NBC’s Olympic plan might be its push to change the way advertisers pay TV networks for ads. NBC will use the Olympics to attempt to show the world that, despite gloomy reports for the future of the networks, their audience hasn’t abandoned them at all. They’ve just migrated to other platforms.

So, says, Grant Robertson, media reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, NBC will be keeping meticulous track of the numbers of people watching the Olympics across all platforms, online, DVR, cell phones – and both people who still sit in front of the TV. And they’ll combine those numbers in a brand new way.”

It will be fascinating to watch this develop and see if and how it affects the future of advertising [cue futuristic music].

UPDATE #2: According to New York magazine’s Daily Intel, Gossip Girl is returning to the interwebs.

My favorite quote from their article? “As it turned out, illegal access to GG episodes increased by 45 percent when the CW stopped streaming it.”