I have an awkward attraction to Mindy Kaling. Awkward, because I have a complicated relationship with the characters she has played on The Office and Mindy. They seem obsessed with pop culture, their glossy public aesthetic, and the material. So I shouldn’t be attracted to her, because those obsessions annoy me. And yet, I want to have a dysfunctional relationship with her characters. I want to fight about Taylor Swift songs playing in our Mercedes. I want to go through a painful divorce with them, and reconcile one day in the romcom style of the art they find heroic. So, when Fox predictably cancelled The Mindy Project last year because it was a funny, well-written show that didn’t attempt to solve naval crimes, I was somewhat heartbroken. But then Hulu came along. The online network picked up the show, and Mindy and I were reconciled, just like in the movies!
What’s above is analogous to the current state of television in that the Internet and streaming services are the future of TV. Earlier this month, the National Football League broadcast a London game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills on the Internet. Yahoo served as the tilt’s exclusive venue (with the exception of the Jacksonville and Buffalo markets), the first such broadcast in league history. The NFL, always at the forefront of broadcasting and profit, was ostensibly using the game as a precursor to telecasts in markets beyond North America. And though the viewership numbers are under some discussion, one can imagine that this is the future of sports television. And as go sports, so does the rest of TV. Sport is the last bastion of live viewing, and has always been a leader in evolving to suit consumption habits. Sports were on cable long before The Sopranos gave life to HBO. Monday Night Football moved to ESPN a few years ago.
As the technology and the audience change while the networks don’t, TV is being consumed and celebrated beyond its once seemingly indestructible monopoly. HBO, Amazon, and AMC were feted at the Emmys; Hulu and Netflix are creating interesting, popular, and successful programming; and NetFlix’s CEO declared that their shows aren’t just better, but that all TV will be on the Internet by 2030. Is there any hope left for the network model?
Network television has been trying to fend off the rise of alternative broadcasters for over a decade. NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox were besieged by the onslaught of cable. But while HBO et al. were expanding the breadth and ambition of the medium through innovative and original programming, the networks had the sanctuary of convenience and tradition, not to mention brand authority. Plug a TV into a wall and you can watch Big Bang Theory. And even if a Chuck Lorre laugh fest isn’t on, the viewer recognizes that eventually something they like will probably come on CBS soon enou… oh hey, it’s Mark Harmon! Network TV was safe and comfortable.
But out of nowhere, at least to the anachronistic and ignorant rule of the networks, came the Internet. The constraints of traditional television were gone, like twenty-two minute sitcoms and seven-day schedules to shoehorn CSIs into. Programming is released on any schedule, viewers vote on pilots to promote to series, and the audience can consume products at their leisure. And the Internet doesn’t have to bow to censorship. But, instead of embracing the technology and adapting to inevitability, the networks have fought back with inferior efforts and multiple incarnations of established dreck. And now their end is nigh. Advertising revenues for broadcast television have plateaued, and advertisers are “predicted to spend more on digital platforms than television in two years.”
My own viewing habits are indicative of the evolution of the way we consume TV. I haven’t had a TV in nearly a decade; only recently has that changed. All of my viewing was online, mostly through less than legal means. It allowed me to pick and choose what I wanted to watch, on my schedule, without commercials or Dick Wolf productions. The picture quality, the sound quality, and the technology were at times less than ideal. But the price was right: nothing. And I never had to sit through an episode of something I loathed.
But don’t take my word for it. Take consulting firm Deloitte’s:
Streaming video services, now used by more than 42 percent of American households, are heavily changing media consumption habits across generations, according to the ninth edition of the Deloitte “Digital Democracy Survey” released today. The study reveals that streaming content has overtaken live programming as the viewing method-of-choice, with 56 percent of consumers now streaming movies and 53 percent streaming television on a monthly basis, as compared to 45 percent of consumers preferring to watch television programs live. Moreover, younger viewers have moved to watching TV shows on mobile devices rather than on television. Among Trailing Millennials (age 14-25), nearly 60 percent of time spent watching movies occurs on computers, tablets and smartphones, making movie viewing habits decidedly age-dependent.
In August I purchased a cable package, in part because I write about TV and I can deduct it from my taxes, and in part because I gotta have my Shondaland Thursdays without delay. And what I’ve found in the decade between cable subscriptions is that they look a lot like the Internet. Albeit an overpriced and less user friendly Internet. There’s on-demand viewing, but it takes some getting used to and there are still commercials. The picture quality is without peer, but I feel like I’m always being sold something. My package inexplicably doesn’t include HBO, but I can watch Modern Family at any time of the day.
The reason I keep the cable, other than the advice of my accountant and my affection for Ellen Pompeo: sports. I can watch nearly any event live, in perfect HD, with pause and playback features. Sports had always been the one drawback to my online viewing decade. Either options available to me were too expensive, the illegal streams lagged or were non-existent, or simply watching on a 13” screen didn’t do the spectacles justice. But as the Jags-Bills experiment predicts: sport is not long for extreme online convenience at a reasonable expense. And when that day comes, and it is coming soon, my subscription will be stricken from my monthly bills.
So, with the rapid change in technology suggesting that networks adapt a new model, one would think that the quality of their programming would evolve to counter their dissipating audiences. But that has not been the case. The fall pilot season has been awful, and television events like a live broadcast of H.M.S. Pinafore can only hold the fort for so long. Network programming is analog in every sense of the word. It is tired and dated and enjoyed mostly by your parents. Programming still aspires to mediocrity and adheres to antiquated formats. How many hospital serials that run forty-two minutes plus commercials from 10 to 11 can a generation handle? The networks are trying to offer audiences online options, but their streaming services are designed for your parents, as is the programming. Despite their efforts to offer on demand viewing on multiple platforms, they’re still selling a product that was designed for a platform (traditional TV) that has evolved beyond six channels and a set of rabbit ears. Networks are large companies with near infinite resources and a keen understanding of technology, and yet they seem to still believe that a century old model will continue to be successful. CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox seem to be trying to bleed the last few dollars out of a generation that will soon be watching NCIS in their retirement homes on iPads programmed by their grandchildren.
I missed last night’s episode of The Mindy Project. According to Hulu, in “Mindy and Nanny” Mindy has to “fire the world’s most difficult nanny: her mother-in-law. Jody tries to save Jeremy from his manipulative girlfriend.” It sounds delightful. I’m going to watch it as soon as I send this to my editor. I’m going to watch it in my pajamas, eating watermelon and Halloween candy using my parents’ Hulu login while drinking a pumpkin beer on my couch at 1:11 in the afternoon. Just the way TV is meant to be consumed.
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.