To save television, Amazon might have to help kill it
BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Last Sunday, The Walking Dead ended its fourth season with a record-breaking finale, pulling in 15.7 million viewers. The day after, Forbes contributor Merrill Barr stated that those ratings hardly matter anymore. Barr asserts that with The Walking Dead’s recent syndication deal, the show will never have to worry about making money again. In fact, he goes on from there to say that syndication matters as much as ever, and that even in the era of streaming, it’s still the most important milestone for a successful television show.
Barr’s proclamations about the current landscape of television feel particularly odd at the moment, considering a major announcement today. Amazon unveiled a new streaming service, called Fire TV, that will be free and available through a custom-made device that you will hook up to your television. It costs $99 and ships today.
This will likely prove to be a game-changing move for them. They’ll not only have a chance to bogart users from tools like Apple TV and Roku, but also from Hulu, whose Hulu Plus service is a lot like Amazon Prime.
But what defenders of traditional TV models like Barr and more forward-thinking tech enthusiasts don’t get is that no one thing is going to dominate the future of television. Sure, FireTV could be a very big deal, but they’re unlikely to corner the entire streaming market with it. On the other hand, Barr should be aware that streaming is the future of television. It’s just likely to be a more diverse and complicated future than what streaming offers right now.
The first part of this evolution will be the improved combination of television and the Internet on physical platforms. In some respects, this process has already come a long way in the past few years. But it’s still miles away from where it’s going. Earlier this month, Zachary Seward of Quartz wrote about these developments:
Most of the innovation in Internet TV has previously been found in electronics that plug into television sets, like Apple TV, Roku devices, and Google’s Chromecast. (“Set-top box” is an outdated term for them.) But using them along with a traditional cable box is harder than it should be. Most people find it cumbersome to switch between one device for watching Netflix and another for live TV.
The next generation of TV services ought to solve that by fully integrating streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. Users won’t have to switch inputs on their television sets, which may sound like a small improvement but could help make Internet TV more mainstream.
Netflix recently agreed to pay Comcast for better delivery of its content. Some analysts believe that, as part of the deal, Comcast will put Netflix on future versions of its cable box. That would be a big step for the cable TV industry, which has generally been wary of internet-delivered competitors.
For Seward, the potential Netflix-Comcast deal is the next step of the equation. While everyone is wondering whether Amazon is going to wipe the competition off the map, what they should be thinking about is how Amazon and other companies are going to work together to integrate their services in the most effective fashion.
In February, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Felix Gillette mentioned that Comcast had been working on a deal with Verizon which would have tied broadband, pay TV, and mobile services together, thereby offering an alternative to online video options. Their partnership ultimately fell through, leaving Verizon open to, as Gillette puts it, “launch a national Internet-TV platform that would compete with today’s cable-TV providers, including Comcast.”
But despite this turn of events, consumers should still expect to see many companies pulling their resources as the now defunct Comcast-Verizon deal would have. It seems only inevitable that as everyone wants a piece of the pie, eventually industry giants will have to work together to provide broadband, pay TV, mobile services, and online video platforms, because people aren’t going to want to choose either/or.
What is likely to be the most significant change in this brave new world of television was outlined in an essay from the CEO of Netflix himself, Reed Hastings, in which he argues that apps will replace traditional TV channels. So in the future, there would be no more NBC, just the NBC app.
This isn’t to say that these apps wouldn’t include the commercials that continue to be the lifeblood of network and basic cable today, or that you wouldn't be able to access a constant stream of content the way you can now when you turn to ABC or CBS or what have you. But the way you access that content would be through the Internet; you’ll turn on your TV, and the FOX app will be a few rows down from the Netflix one, virtually eliminating the differences between streaming services and broadcast television.
None of this is to say there aren’t a lot of kinks to work out with these ideas. How we’re going to pay for these services, and who we’re going to pay for them, is a complicated question. But it’s supremely unlikely that Amazon, or any one company in particular, is going to “win” the future of television.
The thing that remains clear is that even in a world where YouTube has conditioned us to be wary of videos longer than five minutes, people still want to watch TV. In conjunction with the second season premiere of Netflix’s first major hit, House of Cards, Kevin Spacey (the show’s star) gave voice to this idea. “Let them binge,” Spacey said. “The device and the length are irrelevant… It’s all content. It’s just story. The audience has spoken. They want stories. They’re dying for them.”
The sentiment reeks of ego, but at the end of the day, Spacey is right. We still lap up stories like milk from a saucer. The only difference is now, we want all the stories—and we want them delivered quickly, efficiently, and whenever we want. We, the audience have spoken. Frank Underwood couldn’t have put it better himself.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
photo by N. Feans/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | remix by fern