This week, television networks are holding annual upfronts, the glorified press events intended to entice advertisers to buy what they are selling: viewer attention. It's getting harder to sell, because fewer people are watching live, as David Carr writes for the New York Times.
The upfronts are happening hot on the heels of an announcement by Dish Network, a satellite company that serves 12 million U.S. subscribers, that it would roll out a DVR technology that would seamlessly skip commercials, dubbed the Hopper.
Are these companies justified in their contempt for something like the Hopper? Sure. Technology is a disrupter in this field. Carr noted in an interview at Tuesday's Internet Week keynote that this technology is similar to Instapaper on the web: the service strips away advertising in favor of a better reading experience.
DVRs like TiVo enable commercial skipping, but at least some work is involved in skipping commercials; the Hopper apparently gets rid of the guesswork of starting the show back up. Perhaps more importantly, viewers are subjected to ad messages even during the act of fast forwarding.
At the same time, however, lamenting an improved DVR will likely be fruitless.2
Arguing against place- or time-shifting is difficult to understand when you consider the economics of the situation. Networks are charging cable and satellite companies carriage fees at a price per customer basis. In that respect, the networks are collecting on two fronts: from the advertising revenue and the carriage agreements. Advertising revenue is undoubtedly more lucrative, but it's a little disheartening that networks that double dip are offended when cable companies innovate in the interest of the customer.
What's more, there's little discussion about how to address these problems within the industry. Rather than complaining about technology, networks should figure out how to subvert it. They're already doing it: reality shows with live results can really only be enjoyed live. There's danger of fatigue there, with aging reality shows losing their audiences. So the networks try to reinvent: NBC's "The Voice" is an example of a show that is fresh. Just because that format is working now doesn't mean it will last.
Scripted serialized dramas are suffering as a result: follow Twitter on Sunday nights and note that no one is raving about what's on the broadcast networks. Instead, people are discussing HBO's "Game of Thrones" and AMC's "Mad Men." There's less risk-taking on the part of broadcast networks to create event shows (no, not "The Event"). This means there is the potential to attract live viewership for those serials, but the networks aren't taking the risk, This isn't without exceptions -- NBC's "Revolution" looks like a show that will attract a lot of viewers to the pilot, but it's more about sustaining live viewers long-term.
Digital distribution, an initiative spurred by rampant piracy, is also cannibalizing live television viewership, but I don't hear executives complaining about that. It's unclear how much money companies are making on iTunes sales and Hulu viewership. NBC's Ted Habert, who called the Hopper an "insult," also noted that cross platform audience measurement needs improvement.
DVRs are a disruption in the TV industry; they have been for the better part of a decade. Is it a battle worth fighting, worth talking about, when faced with other disruptions like cable and online video? Probably not.
Ted Habert, the chairman of NBC broadcasting, called it an "insult." NBC recently merged with Comcast. File this comment away for when Comcast inevitably introduces this feature on its DVR cable boxes. ↩
The DVR is technology that has indeed stagnated; the last time a lot of people were excited about a DVR was when the TiVo Series 2 launched–or was it CableCard? ↩