I don't dislike television. As a matter of fact I like certain kinds of television enough that I founded a group here on Gather about it. At the same time, after watching a little daytime television over spring break I'm pretty disgusted. The daytime shows seem to have gotten worse than they were even three or four years ago. What is going on here? You would think that with 500 channels of competition on most cable channels the quality of the product would go up. I have some ideas on why the average quality is so low, especially during the day, and some predictions on where things are going.
The key to understanding why daytime TV is so bad is to understand that networks are out to maximize profit, and the way to do that is not always to draw a large audience. A high-quality show with good writers, good actors, and high production values can be more expensive than the additional audience it draws is worth to advertisers. Certain types of shows can remain profitable even with a very small audience because they are cheap to produce.
There is a kind of hierarchy of costs. Dramas, cop shows, and to some extent science fiction are expensive to do well. They'll usually run initially at times where there is a potential for large audiences. Once they've run a couple of times they can go to afternoon and morning markets in sydication. Sitcoms are cheaper. You just need a set, writers, and actors--no expensive chase scenes or CG needed. Talk shows are even cheaper. You can cut out some of the writers. Game shows are even cheaper. You just need a set and maybe two actors. Prizes are usually donated as a form of advertising. Reality shows can be even cheaper than game shows. You don't always even need a host or a set. A network can make a decent profit even if they have a minimal market because their costs are so low.
So, what does all of that mean for the future of television? For one thing, an individual television channel will rarely if ever be able to pull in the number of viewers that the big three networks did back in their glory years. as a matter of fact the number of likely viewers for any given channel will probably continue to decline. Every channel has to compete with around 500 others. Also, they are competing with more and more non-television competitors. DVDs compete with television for viewers. So do video games. So does the Internet in generally, and especially sites like MySpace and YouTube. Even Gather competes with television, both for viewer eyeballs and for the advertisers to sell access to those eyeballs to.
That competion will continue to get better. As Intenet bandwidth improves it will open up more options for massively multiplayer games. How many teenage World of Warcraft players never even turn on a television anymore? Probably a lot. Those numbers will grow as the gameplay gets more and more realistic and the on-line worlds become richer.
Audiences for traditional television will continue to shrink. As they shrink those audineces will also become less affluent and less educated. Given the competition for a shrinking audience and one less desirable to advertisers, I could see prime time television gradually looking more like daytime television. That's already happening to some extent, with more and more reality shows, one of the cheapest forms of television, showing up in prime time. .
What new kinds of shows will become popular? Ones with low production costs. As decent CG gets less expensive you'll see more science fiction and less cop shows. Science fiction will be cheaper to produce. You'll see more user created content. I'm surprised that we aren't already seeing a "Best of YouTube" show on one of the cable networks. The video equipment available to consumers, and especially teenage and college consumers will continue to get better. As that happens, the quality of user-created content will improve. Any idea that cuts costs and provides an acceptable audience size will get beaten into the ground. I'm surprised that we're not already seeing videos from Europe's computer demo scene on the networks. We'll undoubtedly start seeing more soap operas from India and probably content from China if they relax their control over their media a bit. Outsourcing television. That's got to be a new low, but it is already happening to a certain extent.
As other countries become more affluent more will develop film and television industries of their own. A lot of that content will show up on US cable networks. We're seeing quite a bit from Hongkong and Japan. I'm surprised we're not seeing much from South Korea yet, given its booming economy..
On the upside, we'll probably see content created specifically for DVDs rather than just ported over to it. I could see the creators of a cult favorite show simply creating a ten or twelve hour story arc and putting it straight out to DVD. They would probably want to break it down into 45 minute episodes to keep it in digestable chunks, but why do they have to show the episodes on television when the DVD market is so lucrative? It would also certainly be possible to create a regular Interent only television show, then possibly dump the episodes to DVD as the show becomes more popular.
So, the bottom line: expect traditional TV to head to lower and lower cost production. Expect more and more people to spend their leisure time elsewhere. Expect prime time TV to look more and more like daytime TV, or at least like afternoon TV. Expect the few things worth watching to be mainlyuser created..