The Future of Television – Finally!

16 07 2009

Last week I ran a panel at the NATPE LATV Festival. NATPE, which is the National Association of Television Program Executives, describes itself as representing companies and people who are “involved in or wanting to become involved with the creation, development and distribution of television programming.” Along the way they promote discussion about television programming. And that’s what I was doing at the conference. Promoting Discussion. Hey, I’m all about talking (as anyone who knows me will sadly attest).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, unless I’m doing reality television, what the hell is there to talk about? Is there any television industry for me to create programming? And why should I care?”

Well, here’s why those of you who are in any part of the entertainment industry (or who would like to be) should care. The really interesting thing about the conference was just how aware the entire industry has finally becoming aware of the sea change. Of course, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the changes. There are editors who I know who haven’t worked in eight or nine months; some are looking to sell their houses to make ends meet, and nearly every single person I know now says that they are working “below their rate” (which means, working for less money than they used to and waaaay less than they’d like to). And those changes are going to irrevocably affect how we all make and distribute our media.

The overall takeaway I got from the panels I visited and the one that I ran (“Animation: The Web Levels the Playing Field” with Chuck Williams, Producer, Walt Disney Animation Studios;  Allen DeBevoise, CEO, Machinima.com;  Uri Shinar, CEO & Founder, Aniboom;  Lifeng Wang, President, Xing Xing Digital Corp.) was that the television industry is changing mightily and those of us who can’t accept that change are totally hosed. That’s what I twittered after the conference.

I know, I know. But it’s interesting that this was coming from the real players in the industry.

There was much discussion about the collapse of the syndication market and the precipitous drop in ad revenue. The combination of these two things — the foundations of how this content gets paid for — means that content can’t be produced at the same level as before because it can’t be sold for as much money as before. There was plenty of discussion about the change in the broadcast model — 22 episode orders for (essentially) two network runs of a show, running primarily on broadcast with some nod to web streaming models like Hulu.

There was some discussion about how the web is beginning to suck away some of the ad revenue as well as some of the distribution, but the general consensus is that there’s no real money on the web yet — at least not at the levels that the Big Boys are used to. Uri Shinar, who runs Aniboom, said on my panel that he has to look at moving into traditional media to supplement his online, crowd sourcing method of distribution. Chuck Williams, who is directing at Disney Animation, said that they are approaching the dual distribution mode from the other direction — spreading into online to keep their franchises alive during the years in between theatrical releases.

The web is an established tool and it is growing in importance, the players agree. But there are still many people who don’t get it. For those of you who believe that you’ll be able to work below-the-line as you always have been (one show at a time, for a very good wage, guaranteed for 22 episodes a season), well you might as well line up at the state unemployment office now. Shows that once shot for eight days will move to six or fewer, episode orders will shrink to ten or so episodes with the possibility of renewals. That means that our contracts as editors won’t guarantee us more than two or three months of work.

We’re going to working on more things (sometimes simultaneously), for less money, than before. And that’s actually going to be exciting and dynamic. We need to embrace that reality.

Paradoxically, this means that those of you who are now graduating from college, with a decent skill set and some work behind you, are really going to be in a much better place than Old Farts (Disclaimer: I Am An Old Fart of a type), who have kids and mortgages and big car payments. We won’t be agile enough to catch the wave. More likely, we’re going to be buried under it.

Someone responded to my tweet about the conference with another one that “They’re five years behind.” That’s true. There are some people who began establishing a base in online programming years ago. They were greeted with jeers: “There’s no money in that.” Even today, people who are all about following the money will challenge us with the accurate claim that very few people have figured out how to make money on the Web with content or programming.

But those days are fast going away. The cable/phone company’s Four Play strategies (in which they will sell you a phone, your television programming, your wireless and your internet/data all through the same pipe) are moving your computer screen into your living room. The recent court decision to allow Cablevision to keep remotely storing viewers shows on their servers rather than our DVR boxes, will only accelerate that move. Within a few years, it won’t matter where we decide to watch our shows — on a large television screen, on our computer monitors, on our cel phones, or on a screen built into our refrigerators. The future of the Apple TV is finally here.

This means that there will be a million channels out there to fill with programming. No, make that an “unlimited number of channels.” There is always the danger proclaimed by Bruce Springsteen (“57 Channels and Nothin’ On“) but that depends more on who’s watching than who’s programming. As companies like Revision 3 show (check out their very cool Film Riot, a how-to-make cheap VFX show with Ryan Connolly), the real future is going to be creating much much cheaper content for a much smaller niche market.

If you guys want to have a future in the film world of the future — you should figure out how to do that. Then you’ll be way ahead of the professional Television Programming Executives and maybe be able to set your own agenda.


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