This week my wife and I watched Channing Tatum and Beyoncé on Lip Sync Battle about 3.42 million times. We did not watch the episodes in their entirety, nor did we watch them during their scheduled broadcasts on a network called Spike, which I’m not sure if we even get with our cable package and whose sole purpose seems to be fixing bars and indulging in forensic criminology. There is no metric to account for our viewership, other than YouTube hits, but who knows if we were even watching Channing channel Bey on Spike’s actual YouTube channel as opposed to someone who posted the clip themselves. Afterwards, we wondered: When is Lip Sync Battle on Spike, and does anyone watch those broadcasts, and if so, why? How was that viewing experience skewed towards the viewer as consumer? What advertisements (read: revenue for somebody) were we exposed to that we absorbed subconsciously?
And why is television, as a medium and industry, so reluctant to evolve to this new mode of consumption?
I’ve had a handful of good ideas in my life. The neighborhood I grew up in had a small village at its center, removed from the chaos of the city’s urban core. It was lined with dated pubs and Mom n’ Pop stores. When I was in my late teens, I joked with some friends on our walk to school that we should dropout, buy up all the neighborhood’s dilapidated storefronts, and wait for the property values to soar. We made no such investment, and the village is now filled with million-dollar condos and kitty-cornered Starbucks, well beyond my means.
Sometime in the early aughts, a friend of mine was working for the post office, and in an inspired moment, I suggested that the USPS should offer free @USPS.com email addresses where people could move their traditional postal services to a digital platform as an established brand. They could be like Hotmail, I mused, but with all your bills and existing mail routed easily to your virtual inbox. My ideas were laughed at. I should’ve investigated further. Seems like a revenue stream the USPS could’ve used.
In 2010, when Conan O’Brien was unceremoniously removed as host of The Tonight Show, he began selling himself to other networks. I mused, to no one in particular, that O’Brien should just broadcast his show on conan.com, sell ads as he wished and cut out the nuisance of networks. That would’ve been a bad idea, since conan.com is Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard’s official message board, but O’Brien’s TeamCoco.com would’ve served the same purpose.
The red-headed stepchild of late night ultimately chose to bring his humor to TBS, where he now languishes around ninth place in the ratings behind Last Call with Carson Daly, which apparently did not go off the air in 2009, and something called Watch What Happenswhich, best I can tell, is a show about someone named Andy Cohen and the people who happen to be in his living room at any given time.
One of the challenges of the current TV landscape is that there is no adequate metric by which to measure viewership. The Nielsen ratings are an anachronism, still using a small section of viewers as representative of an increasingly complex and fickle national audience. Today’s TV consumer is not the 1940s viewer for whom the system was developed, white middle class families with one television and three stations. The Nielsen ratings fail to effectively account for PVRs, streaming options, partial content (clips on YouTube etc.), group viewing, and, yes, illegal downloads and streaming of content. While advertising executives are apparently still attached to the relic metrics, their blissfully ignorant patriarchy will soon be itself a relic and we may as well prepare ourselves for the evolution of the medium known as television.
Network TV is already adapting to the new realities of the digital generation—albeit slowly—mostly due to the aforementioned old white guys and their interest in metrics. All major networks offer some form of streaming service. CBS is launching a digital network and has content deals with Amazon and Netflix; ABC is owned by Disney, who is part-owner of Hulu, the streaming service that now offers some original programming; and FOX is also a part-owner of Hulu. NBC is owned by Comcast, so they still want you to buy cable and believeUndateable is funny. All of the networks’ streaming options have flaws such as delays or issues with availability. All are tied into antiquated notions of revenue streams and a failure to adapt to an audience vastly different from the one that made their industry rich.
Cable is a different animal, one much more difficult to analyze in terms of metrics. While cable networks require subscriptions in order to augment their revenues, their respect for the art of TV evident in their programming and their polarity in relation to networks suggests a much easier transition to usage by a digital generation. HBO and Showtime already offer over-the-top subscription video on demand, distributed as a standalone offering without cable, and OS apps provide additional avenues for viewership.
It has never made sense to me that networks don’t live stream their broadcasts. Why should stockholders and advertisers care about how an ad is absorbed, as long as it reaches an audience? Watching from a computer or mobile device adds avenues by which broadcasters may insert advertisements and sell their wares. Popups, sidebars, on-screen links, easily shareable and tweetable links. It seems like the obvious evolution. Instead, the viewers are able to watch illegal streams or PVR (so as to adapt viewing to their own schedules as opposed to an arbitrary network schedule) without ads or the opportunity for revenue growth.
Which brings me back to Conan O’Brien. When NBC returned Jay Leno and benign humor to The Tonight Show desk, why was there no enterprising executive whispering ambitious thoughts in O’Brien’s ear? He had a built-in audience and rabid fanbase who skewed younger and had already adapted to the conveniences of digital viewing. Could a show not be owned, produced, controlled, and broadcast by O’Brien’s Conaco production company? TBS issued a press release just this week that boasted Team Coco’s YouTube channel’s “2 billion video views, with fans clocking more than 6.2 billion minutes of viewing time. The channel, which features clips from current and past episodes of CONAN, along with online-exclusive music and comedy, has grown its fan base, as well, climbing to more than 3.5 million subscribers.” What role does TBS play in that success? Are syndicated reruns of 2 Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory invaluable lead-ins? Conan’s live viewing popularity (albeit by an admittedly flawed metric) puts him in a conversation with Andy Cohen instead of Jimmy Fallon, suggesting TBS merely provides a venue for O’Brien to compete in a race he can’t possibly win, no matter the mode for quantification. The minute he signed with TBS, he relegated himself to last place. The network has neither the pedigree of NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX nor the unequivocal cool of Comedy Central or HBO.
Had O’Brien been convinced to broadcast Conan exclusively online, who knows where he and the medium would be now? An online platform would have allowed O’Brien freedom, both creatively and financially, from the tyranny of network executives. With a built-in audience, he could’ve easily attracted advertisers and unique revenue streams. He could’ve been a pioneer in an industry desperate for someone to colonize the new realities of a digitized medium. At the outset of satellite radio, Sirius decided that they’d need a property to build around, and that property was Howard Stern. While not a direct parallel, one can imagine O’Brien building a similar, if more tailored, empire around himself.
An established TV property like O’Brien isn’t currently available on the free agent market, and may never be again, unless the cast of Friends wants to reunite to continue the series or a Game of Thrones/The Walking Dead crossover can be realized. But there are options for enterprising artists who see the network/cable model as a slowly dying. If Zach Braff, with limited appeal or filmic acumen, can crowdsource $6 million for Wish I Was Here, imagine what a web-based TV enterprise with marketable talent could inspire. The supernatural ratings that The X-Files has managed with its continuation of the series some 15 years after it left TV perhaps lead to the argument that creator/showrunner Chris Carter should’ve brought Mulder and Scully somewhere other than FOX, who pre-empted the seminal series return for NFL post-game self-flagellation.
Network television is not exactly a place that naturally promotes ingenuity or progressive thinking. Networks make the Catholic church seem avant-garde. More appropriately, they make Chuck Lorre seem avant-garde. And much like my USPS and gentrified neighborhood moments of inspiration, I have no background in losing packages or fair trade coffee—I have no idea if this will work financially or technologically. But I’m part of the generation that has intimately experienced the shift from analog to digital, and I sit somewhere close to the 18-35 demographic that apparently dictates how many hours of Chicago-based drama we’re spoon-fed each week. And I know that as soon as this column is posted, I’m going to watch Channing and Yoncé 4211 more times. It seems to me now would be the time to invest in the inevitable transition away from an outdated model. I have no money to invest, myself, but I think I have Matthew Perry’s phone number somewhere, and I claim the rights to all intellectual property herein, which I will offer for 11% of revenues born of these concepts.
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.