How to Save Broadcast TV

Anyone over thirty knows deeply the problems with broadcast television.   In the dark ages before Tivo, before the Internet, yes even before DVDs and VHS, civilization made do with watching whatever was programmed by the networks.  This meant living with the whims of the network executives, where niche shows such as Star Trek were canceled after entertaining only 22% of the TV audience, about the same share as American Idol gets today. Advertisers were king, and viewers had to beg for worthwhile shows. If it turned out there was an interesting show to watch, it meant organizing your schedule around the TV schedule, because in broadcast TV there were no second chances (except perhaps during summer reruns).

But, there were good things about life during broadcast.  I remember as a kid watching the Brady Bunch or Happy Days, and the next day at school all my friends had seen the same show.  We had a shared experience, and nearly every kid in school had suffered Marcia's broken nose at the same time, or watched Fonzie try to jump 14 garbage cans on his motorcycle.

"Specials" were truly special events, such as the Frosty The Snowman Christmas show on CBS, which wasn't guaranteed to ever show on TV again.  Who can forget the exciting music introducing it, beckoning you into the living room to stare at the TV?

In a similar way, there was something comforting about the timeslots for family hour and Saturday morning cartoons. The paternalist networks felt that 8pm was an appropriate time for the family to share an hour before the flickering lights before the kids go to bed, in a tradition that probably stretches back to the campfires of our primitive ancestors.  Meanwhile, Saturdays were a legitimate excuse for kids to consume mass amounts of sugary cereal paired with limited animation and ads for Mattel toys.  Yes, broadcast TV had some good points.

All of these thoughts ran through my mind while watching the half-time show for Superbowl XLV.  No, it wasn't Will.i.am's glowing headgear that made me think of sugary cereal. But here is a modern broadcast event that carries all the best baggage of the past: a one-time special event that many schedule their life around, a shared experience, a chance for the family to get together, as well as an excuse to consume massive amounts of Fritos and bean dip with a buffalo-wings back.  And the toys? Well, I guess the car commercials could count for those.  But what held my attention the most wasn't exactly on the TV screen.

While I watched Slash and Fergie battle for that "Sweet Child o' Mine" I also followed along with the chatter on twitter.  Not only did the performers kick off their own perspective on the event, but twitterers across the country provided their own color commentary, snide remarks, and general riffs on the ZeitpunktgeistHere, for example, are some saved tweets:

acarvin Andy Carvin  That was fast. RT @corbett3000: Ha! there’s already a @groupon spoof ad of a flaming protester: http://bit.ly/dVjILj This could get ugly.
slhamlet Wagner James Au  That Groupon commercial may actually inspire the Dalai Lama to give up a lifetime of non-violence to kick the CEO in the nuts.
copyblogger Brian Clark The Chrysler ad worked because of an emotional premise bigger than the product – the salvation of a city and its prodigal son.
BorowitzReport Andy Borowitz #SuperBowl: #Roethlisberger is hanging in there, but then, so is #Mubarak.
Fun, but not exactly Pulitzer writing. So, why is this interesting? Because it answers the question: "Why watch broadcast TV?"  When watching and reading the twitterstream in real-time you can participate in a shared event, something that can't be time-shifted, and experience something special as you kibitz with others.

"But the Superbowl is huge," you say. "It's a massive monolith, like in that Stanley Kubrick movie."

True, but we know from experience that the future of mass media  will be an ever-splintering market.  No matter how huge the show may be, others will be watching something else.  So, let's look at another example: "Castle."

Fillion & Katic read from "Heat Wave"
"Castle," the cop procedural show with Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic as writer Richard Castle and detective Kate Beckett, was a fairly popular show the first two seasons, ranking 35th and 30th, before dropping to around the 50th most popular show in the third season.  Yet, if you watch this 10pm show while following along on twitter you'll find the Superbowl phenomenon once again

sulien77: Tonight's #Castle may be a rerun, but it's just as good the second time through. Love this show!
Cimbora93: RT @Castle_ABC: Catch "Nikki Heat" again tonight at 10pm, and don't forget... a brand NEW episode of #Castle March 21st!
pure_believer: Beckett's reaction to Natalie asking if #Castle is gay is priceless. #coffeespittake
pamfromcalif: @SpoilerTV Should have been #Castle at @PaleyCenter this year discussing Castle's 3rd season huge viewership following.
The same thing happens for Chuck, a show which was reprieved from cancellation due to an active internet buzz by fans.
The key thing is that if the networks recognize this and nurture it, they may be able to extend the life of broadcast TV, maybe even grow it.  Maybe with digital TVs the twitter feed could be included as optional closed caption text.  Think of it like VH1's pop-up videos, except everyone is offering their version of the pop-up dialogue.
There are many ways the networks could ruin it.  For one, they could continue being monolithic. Part of the fun of the twitterstream is that it's democratic, and optional. You can ignore who you want to ignore. If the networks tried to lead viewers, or inject advertising into the feed, or pose as fake viewers... that would be a nail in the coffin.
A bad technical decision would be to institutionalize twitter as the platform for this conversation. Twitter is just one option, and with the speed of internet companies, it might not last as long as broadcast TV.  It would be like saying that AOL is the Internet, which I hope everyone knows by now is not true.  The TV networks should invest in expanding the base for these sorts of messages, without co-opting it.

And, the best way to ruin broadcast TV is to keep doing what they're doing: ignoring the new internet platform, and instead working on developing ever-cheaper lowest-common-denominator reality and game shows.  In that model, there's nothing special, nothing is an event, and I, for one, don't want to participate in that shared experience.
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  1. Broadcast TV died in 90s. It's long gone and not ever coming back,
    for several reasons. One is the three-tier distribution system,
    "cable" and such providing the middle tier in this case. I can't
    think of a single instance where a three-tier system hasn't been
    harmful to consumer choice and ultimately killed itself; movies,
    books, beer, television... It restricts choice and skews the business model in such as way that only very high market shares are profitable.

    Another reason is that that mass-market media business never evolved past a business model that relied on huge audiences. This means that for the most viewed shows, most of the viewers don't like them much. This is as opposed to a small audience show that has genuine fans. The web is an ideal platform for that.

    Broadcast TV is still acting like it's 1970, even today. It's way, way too late.

    Also. young people not only don't buy plastic discs, they don't even buy TVs. People that are right now entering their high-spending years were not even born yet when TV schedules mattered.

    And Twitter? Please... Twitter is generational. It's a "service"
    for oldies and thankfully young people can see how pointless it is and aren't falling for it.
    The average Twitter user is 39.


    Just so no to Twitter.

    The early seeds of a future media that people enjoy together, and talk about the next day, is in what we currently think of as video games. But it's just getting started. This new media is rapidly evolving. All the most popular games are now played online with other people. In the near future these online scenarios are going to be further integrated with the long running story lines games have now. The things that happen in online worlds will be talked about the next day, along with the "specials"; events the game makers create several times a year.

  2. Yes, I sort of agree with that, too. Except that broadcast is still happening.

    In the 19th century with the industrial revolution we automated manual tasks.
    In the 20th century systems were automated.

    Now, we're starting to automate mental tasks, except the method we have of automation is collaboration... sending the processing off to someone else. You can see that in the tagged internet, and fail blog, and dysfunctional family photos.... any place where someone else can contribute.

    Broadcast TV doesn't have any place in that model, except where it can become more interactive.

    Even then it's a monolith, but aren't there still places for monoliths in a distributed, collaborative system? Something to center the culture around?

  3. Anonymous10:43 PM

    Here's my take:

    TV (broadcast TV in your example - although I'm not sure that that
    means any more) isn't failing because it isn't interactive. There are
    lots of things people do for entertainment that aren't interactive and
    don't allow feedback or collaboration. Listening to music and watching
    movies are two prime examples.

    TV as we grew up with is failing because it sucks. The content is
    marginal at best and the business model no longer works. Anyone that
    wants the content can get it without watching ads. Which shows that
    the business model is broken. I personally watch no ads whatsoever. I
    either record stuff or pause it long enough to watch the content
    without the ads. And even then the content is *barely* worth my time.
    And by broadcast TV I assume you also mean traditional over the air
    networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. I think those are the very worst.
    And with the exception of major sporting events like the Super Bowl
    all their overall viewership is down. The content (and ads) are
    distilled down to lowest common denominator that the execs think will

    Just like commercial radio, the content is a very tiny cross section
    of what people really want. The content is there to sell to the
    advertisers and not to please the viewers. This clearly doesn't work
    for consumers. We get content that all looks the same and ads we don't
    really want. If it worked we'd enjoy watching the ads and in turn
    purchase those products. But any more the ads on TV and radio are more
    like spam than any kind of targeted approach to selling stuff.

    I think if both TV and radio provided content we wanted and then tried
    to figure out how to make money on it the whole system would work a
    lot better. Look at how protective the major networks are about
    viewing their content online. They don't know how to get you to watch
    the same stupid ads. So instead they have all kinds of restrictions on
    what you can and can't watch online. But that's because they're trying
    to protect their losing business model. What needs to happen is
    something closer to how music gets distributed now. Maybe a given show
    might only have a few viewers, but so what? Instead of trying to make
    a triple-platinum hit why not be happy selling a few CDs and downloads
    to the people that really want your stuff? Production costs go way way

    Making shows like that stupid Charlie Sheen show are a great example
    of how bad their model is. A crappy sitcom like that should cost
    nothing to produce. Nobody should be making millions and millions as
    an actor on a crappy sitcom. Instead there should be hundreds to
    choose from and you find the one you like. You and a few of your
    friends. And that could support it. And they could figure out a way to
    have ads or sponsors and make it work.

    But don't ask me, I don't watch 'regular' TV anyway. I watch mostly
    movies, a couple documentaries, and a selection of this and that. And
    I can easily live without any of it. So as soon as I have to 'pay' for
    it by being forced to watch ads or similar I'll just walk away. It
    just isn't that good.