The man who predicted the death of TV in 1995

Yesterday, NFL Media announced a carriage agreement with Youtube TV. This is a massive shift because live sports content is seen as one of the remaining pillars of linear TV. NFL execs have explained the move very simply: they want the broadest distribution possible, and are therefore following their audience where it goes.

For a while now audiences have turned to video on demand, whether ad-supported (AVOD) or not (SVOD). The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that trend. As a parent of two small children, I was happy to pay Disney+ for quality content that would keep my children entertained during lockdown.

The question is then: what is left of TV if entertainment goes to SVODs and live sports go to Youtube? Is TV defined by the content or by the screen? The debate is raging in the advertising industry because this question is quite literally a billion-dollar one.

Interestingly – as often in media – this debate is not as new as we would think. In an almost prescient interview with Wired 25 years ago, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte addressed this very question:

For the past five years, people who build TV sets have been putting more and more computation into their TVs, and people who build personal computers have been putting more and more video into their personal computers. When these two industrial trends converge, there will be no distinction between the two. Don’t worry about the difference between the TV set and the PC. That’s not fundamental, because basically a TV set is a personal computer you look at from the sofa. Focus on the broadcasting side of it. In the future, we won’t be pushing bits at people like we’re doing today. It doesn’t matter whether you call the receiver a TV or a PC. What’s going to change is how those bits are delivered. (…) They don’t have to be in real time. They can trickle in. They can come in bursts. They can come on demand.

In the rest of the interview – which touches on other current topics such as privacy regulations and artificial intelligence – Negroponte asserts that the Internet is “a medium of choice”, and goes on to pretty much predict the death of TV. I hope he is wrong.

When Covid-19 lockdown measures were enforced in March, people started watching more streaming services but also more TV. When Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away last week, fans around the globe organised to watch the movie Black Panther at the same time. TV can be a comforting collective experience, even when your football team loses.

As a consumer I understand the appeal of SVOD and content personalisation. But TV is expensive to produce and surely quality content should not be reserved to those who can pay subscriptions fees. Having worked in programmatic advertising for 10 years I understand the power of addressability. But as a citizen I also worry about the fragmentation of society, that different groups will end up lacking a common cultural layer to even dialog with each other. Can we find a balance between subscription models and ad-supported models, and between personalised content and shared culture?

To be fair to Negroponte I suspect his point was not so much in favour of über-personalisation than it was against TV content forced on consumers for lack of an alternative offering. With SVODs, content creators get a direct connection to the audience and its behaviours, shortening the feedback loop and tipping the power balance in favour of the users. This could improve content production choices but also promote a better representation of minorities.

To finish with a heart-warming quote from a 2017 Nielsen study: “Much of the American narrative lately has focused on a growing cultural divide. But Nielsen’s data on television programming show something different. Storylines with a strong black character or identity are crossing cultural boundaries to grab diverse audiences and start conversations. That insight is important for culture and content creators, as well as manufacturers and retailers looking to create engaging, high-impact advertising campaigns.

TV as we knew it may be dead, but TV as it could be has never been so interesting.