How downloads will save TV

by Andy Polaine on November 29, 2005

So, I’ve been ranting about the iTunes downloads killing off TV for a while. I’ve not been arguing that TV content will die out, but rather that the way they are funded will change and with it the nature of TV programming and content.

Ivan Askwith from MIT has put forward the details of this argument far better than I:

The most enticing possibility, though, is that on-demand television will allow audiences to take an active role in programming the networks. We’ve seen several examples of fans banding together to save their favorite programs in the past few years. Fox put Family Guy back into production on the strength of high DVD sales, NBC released Freaks and Geeks on DVD after getting bombarded with petitions, and a fan-organized campaign to resurrect Firefly resulted in last month’s big-screen release of Serenity.

Direct downloads will give fans of endangered shows the chance to vote with their wallets while a show is still on the air. And when a program does go off the air, direct payments from fans might provide enough revenue to keep it in production as an online-only venture. If we assume that the average hour-long drama costs $1.5 million per episode and downloads will cost around $2 per viewer, shows would only need a few million viewers to turn a small profit. Would a few million viewers pay $2 a week to download an hour of television? It’s certainly not impossible. In the past month, viewers have shelled out more than $30 million for two hours of Serenity. And even if viewers aren’t prepared to pay $2 per show, there’s nothing to stop the networks from offering free downloads with embedded advertising (which could be far better targeted than the ads networks currently show).

The interesting thing here is the relationship Ivan sets up between the networks on-air versions and then the continued life off-air. I suspect this might turn around the other way. It’s pretty common for TV to pick up on other media outlets (radio is one the most common for comedy) and then harvest the popularity and turn it into a TV show. We’ve seen it plenty of times with cable/access shows too, so I imagine TV might become even more of a repository for things that have been around for a while going broadcast, rather than the place where content is originated.

Via the MIT Arts and Science Blog.

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