What future for television (and Al Jazeera)?

How conflation and complementarity between old and new media affect TV journalism.

The young have moved away from the family ritual of watching television, writes Bishara [Getty]
The young have moved away from the family ritual of watching television, writes Bishara [Getty]

You’ve heard it countless times in recent years. The internet is taking over. It’s the death of television. It’s a matter of time – years, not decades.

But how realistic is this outlook? So many “it’s-the-end” of this and “decline-of” predictions have proven false in the past.

Besides, aren’t more people buying more fancy TVs, watching more channels and taking up more cable and satellite subscriptions? 

In a survey of 68 nations, the minimum average number of television sets for each household is one. This goes up to two in Europe, and three televisions per household in the United States. All countries showed an increase of TV purchases over the first decade of the 21st century.

And yet, there is no doubt something is cooking, as the technological and information revolutions transform how, when, what and where we read, listen and watch.

‘Us’ and ‘them’ in media discourse – The Listening Post

Next is now

But what exactly is brewing? And what do they mean when speaking of the end of television? Is it the end of the living room screen, the cable box, the grid (“appointment viewing”), broadcasters, bundles of satellite channels, or 24/7 TV news?

The answers to these questions have a huge impact on journalism – and for most of us in the “media industry” – it’s a question of livelihood.

There’s an abundance of data and irrefutable evidence that show how new generations of viewers – some like to call them millennials – are going digital.

Oh, no – wait; the youngest generation has already gone mobile. Ah, forget about TV grids; the future is apps.

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TV oligarchies, it’s been argued, no longer control information, video or transmission; the media monopolies are giving way to a plurality of platforms and expressions.

The young have moved away from the family ritual of watching television to the autonomous viewing on laptops, where reacting and communicating back to the world is part and parcel of the ritual.

Instead, news and information are increasingly transmitted, reported, expressed and debated using new vocabulary, syntax and grammar.

Multitasking is in, long attention span is out, and living room watching is out of fashion.

The young have moved away from the family ritual of watching television to the autonomous viewing on laptops, where reacting and communicating back to the world is part and parcel of the ritual. 

And as cable and satellite subscriptions become relatively expensive, especially when consumers are forced to buy bundled channels that are owned by the broadcasting giants, more and more people – especially the young – are canceling their subscriptions in favour of internet content providers such as Hulu, YouTube, etc.

Cord-cutting is the TV networks’ nightmare. Because as young audiences migrate from TV sets to digital consumption of media, advertising is bound to follow them.

The internet has already taken over the music world and transformed the print business. And nowhere is this trend more pronounced and radical than in the United States, the home of the information revolution and the world’s media trendsetter. 

There, the annual revenues of the music industry declined from $14.6bn to $6.3bn between 1999 and 2009 due to new digital monopolies like iTunes. Likewise, newspapers’ revenues fell from $49.3bn to $22.3bn from 2006 to 2012.

It’s only natural that the same applies to television. Or is it?

TV as the future of TV 

While music and print journalism lost half of their revenues, surprisingly, the US TV networks have almost tripled theirs.

Girl watching cartoons online with an iPad tablet [Getty]

Despite shrinking audiences, changing consumption patterns, new competition for advertisement, “the television dinosaur has only grown fatter”. Indeed, “cable TV revenues rose from $36bn in 2000 to $93bn in 2010”.

Call me a skeptic, but this trend calls for serious pause by the doomsayers, considering that the US has been the source of most of the predictions about the demise of television. 

Two new books attempt to explain this paradox or twist in the dynamics between internet and television. They make for an interesting read.

The first is Television is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age by Michael Wolff, and the second is Over the Top: How the internet Is (Slowly but Surely) Changing the Television Industry, by Alan Wolk. (Full disclosure: I downloaded both books off the internet, as I often do nowadays, after reading their review in the digital edition of the New York Review of Books – so much for digital skepticism).

Also read: First westernisation, now techlienation

Wolff argues that television will continue to grow because it’s powerful, attractive and needed. After all, in the United States the mega-cable companies that carry hundreds of TV networks are also the ones who bring the fibre internet lines to US homes. That’s over 90 percent market penetration of all US homes.

People, especially the younger generation, might be migrating in greater numbers to the open internet, but they are not necessarily abandoning TV altogether.

But Wolff claims TV has indeed survived and prospered only because of its proven capacity to adapt and transform with the times, albeit by the digital revolution.

People, especially the younger generation, might be migrating in greater numbers to the open internet, but they are not necessarily abandoning TV altogether. They could end up paying for their internet service providers and TV channels in order to watch different content, ranging from sports to cinema.

Moreover, instead of taking over television, the digital streaming companies are increasingly adapting to and acquiring content from television – most notably in recent times, the dramatic TV series’ that have become so popular in the US and worldwide. Netflix is a case in point.

Indeed, while TV continues to be just that, television, other media specialised companies are adapting to television, whether it’s Apple TV, Netflix TV or Reuters television.

Another factor worth examining, among many: What happens when the young grow older? Will they continue to hide behind their earphones or watch videos on their computers and smart phones after a long day on the job? Or will they reclaim the large HD or DTT sets that were once occupied by their parents?

This is especially relevant when it comes to sports, mega events, wars and unfolding natural disasters. The young and old are still drawn to their televisions to watch live their favourite games, debates and breaking news. A high 85 percent of consumers continue to use TV as their primary source of news.

(An astounding figure if you consider the sad state of TV news, but that I will discuss later.)

A man and his three children use their smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices [Getty]

TV everywhere

To confront the cord-cutting nightmare and meet the increasing demand for internet streaming, broadcasters have already begun to move toward live-streaming their content on the internet in order to make it available on every possible platform.

This will prove attractive once the cable companies and broadcasters simplify their services, unbundle their channels and change their antiquated boxes.

And most importantly, when they allow for the downloading of their shows for later viewing on personal devices, as BBC did with its iPlayer. 

New media companies have already started to provide live streaming of carefully selected sports and news channels for those who don’t bother with hundreds of other channels.

Also read: My Digital Addiction

In short, television is not going anywhere. In the worst-case scenario, it will need to share the increasing demand for video content with internet media providers.

But in reality, and contrary to much of the TV doomsayers, once TV adapts to the digital world, the dynamic between the two could prove complementary and mutually reinforcing, as broadcasters utilise their smart TVs and “second screen” features that combine “the best” of both worlds.

Indeed, second-screen interactions are bound to proliferate, as they become an integral part of the TV landscape.

As Alan Wolff argues, TV can benefit from the power of social media to provide a “non-interruptive promotional vehicle for television programming that reaches a fairly infinite pool of potential viewers”.

TV’s adaption to, and exploitation of, the internet will be the proof that it has finally and truly become part of the 21st-century digital landscape.

Stay tuned – next I’m writing about the future of TV journalism and Al Jazeera.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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