Netflix Nation

Will TV as we once knew it survive, and does anyone care?

The future of television is here, happening all around us. Are we paying enough attention to notice, and if so, is there anything we can do? In his new book Post-TV: Piracy, Cord-Cutting and the Future of Television, Michael Strangelove, who teaches communication at the University of Ottawa, provides a powerful attempt to help us understand this new future.

For most of us, TV is still a video-based medium. But this assumption is becoming quickly outdated. Increasingly, the CBC, YouTube, Netflix and The Pirate Bay (an online directory, which, as its name suggests, facilitates peer-to-peer sharing of media content) are all television. Strangelove is interested in examining how TV is being transformed by the internet. One could argue that the transformative effect works in both directions: the internet is changing TV while TV is changing the internet. New technologies are pushing the boundaries of narrative forms, be it fiction, documentary or news, just as the creators of narrative forms are pushing the technologies beyond their original intent or capabilities.

“Television is no longer associated with authorized and regulated production systems, a universal and familiar device, or any device at all,” argues Strangelove. And yet, despite the disappearance of the TV set as a device that we congregate around, we find ourselves in the golden age of television as a medium.

And because it is more than just a medium of entertainment or education, it is not just TV going through these growing pains. It is a reflection of who we are, of our society. Therefore, not just TV is changing: so are we.

In Strangelove’s words: “As television diffuses throughout the social landscape it is morphing into something quite different from what it was and what it did in the twentieth century.” In particular, the medium has escaped control of regulatory and industrial regimes. Strangelove cites the proliferation of piracy and how much easier it is to access pirate media platforms than it is to access legitimate or official ones. Content industries are all struggling to retain once lucrative advertising and revenue models, in an ecosystem that favours the open over the closed and the borderless over the proprietary. And restating what is now a veritable cliché, Strangelove notes that “either by design or by accident, online media content in all its varieties wants to be free.”

He offers insight and speculation on how that control might be reasserted. In particular he cites the role of software programmers and what he calls adaptive agent designers—services such as Netflix and YouTube, with their reliance upon algorithms to recommend videos for us to watch. Such algorithms mean there will still be curators for content, only now the curators are software-based and more adept than traditional curatorial methods at incorporating the needs and habits of the viewer.

To that he cautions that “it is a small step from having our needs served to seeing our actions controlled.” Traditional TV watching was in the privacy of our own home. TV watching on the internet leaves a revealing trail of digital breadcrumbs that not only depict our interests, but in some respects also our entire personality.

He explicitly addresses the challenge this transformation poses to traditional players. “Can an industry that has been built on the pretensions of owning eyeballs, controlling audiences, and force-feeding advertising to viewers sufficiently transform itself in the age of networked digital media consumption?”

Strangelove analyzes the phenomenon of piracy from a number of angles, including the way in which technology makes it ludicrously easy to copy. However, he also emphasizes the political dimension: “When millions of young consumers choose to behave in a certain way there is little, if anything, that governments and industry can do.” Strangelove argues that the idea that piracy can be stopped at all is a “statement of faith in the belief system of capitalism” and not grounded in empirical or technical reality.

“The problem is not the lack of legitimate digital services, fair pricing, or usability,” he says. Users just do not want to pay for content, especially if there is a means of not doing so. He goes on to argue that “piracy has been a source of incredible innovation in the marketplace and leads to lower prices and more convenient services. No wonder incumbent industry players hate piracy.”

“This means that as long as hundreds of millions of consumers want to engage in digital piracy, there will be legitimate and illegitimate businesses willing and able to facilitate mass online piracy.” And he goes further to argue that “we are in the age of mass piracy.”

This is especially the case given that “the incumbent television industry has failed to offer free online access that matches the flexibility and ease of use experienced by the online pirate.”

Strangelove is also deeply critical of the industry’s response, both in terms of its willingness to adapt to the seemingly inevitable change and its heavy-handed battle against piracy. He also believes that attempts to control piracy will fail: “representatives of the entertainment industry and financial advisers insist that piracy will be reined in and cord-cutting will remain marginal, but the possibility of significant disruption due to uncontrolled digital plenitude remains.” But citing extensive research, he demonstrates that in this age of mass piracy “the Internet has created a globalized gift economy that directly competes with capitalism’s market economy.”

“What is it about digital piracy,” Strangelove asks “that causes industry lobbyists to engineer misinformation campaigns, governments to engage in gross acts of legislative overreach, secret trade negotiations, and misguided policy goals, and the entertainment industry to be willing to alienate pretty much the entire Internet ­community?”

For Strangelove this era of copyright infringement does not spell doom, just a reconfiguration of the industry’s infrastructure. “Television content must now compete against a vast army of independent (indie) film-makers who use the Internet to distribute their films, often for free.”

Yet this is where the argument in Post-TV asks more questions than it answers. Readers would have benefited if Strangelove had offered more tangible solutions. He skilfully depicts the role of television in shaping the 20th century, influencing “public policy, consumer values, and our perception of everyday reality,” and in his own words admits confusion about how—or who—is shaping the century ahead: “As it is, we are still coming to grips with what our crazy kids are doing with the Internet and television today. Can anyone claim to fully comprehend what is occurring right now in the television system?”

Post-TV presents a smart argument about an ecosystem in shift, but where Strangelove presents the issues facing the industry in a post-TV landscape, he presents few paths forward. Is arguing that piracy has become normal so controversial that it requires such a thorough analysis? Perhaps more controversial, or at least uncomfortable for the traditional powers that be, is the reality that piracy is unavoidable, and entirely new processes, systems and relationships between content consumers and providers need to be established.

What Strangelove does well is entirely debunk the industry and government narratives that are biased and not grounded in empirical reality.

Where he leaves the reader wanting is in the lack of an articulated alternative or clearly presented argument as to what that alternative could be: What models are being fostered, if not by the traditional television industry, then by parallel industries? In an ecosystem without gates or borders, how can content be monetized? Where is there value, to audiences and users, and to advertisers and brands? What role do community building and fandom have in a sustainable, post-TV ecosystem? And how does the blurring line between viewer and creator affect the relationship between content consumer and content provider, with regards to profit? In an economy where the only constant is change, is television truly doomed, or is it simply evolving, and, if that is the case, how can the surrounding established models and systems evolve in step?

Given the proliferation of creators and the richness and variety of content online, the fact that so much of the alternative presented in the book depends upon anonymous internet commentators misses an opportunity to highlight changing practices and emerging communities in the same rigorous manner as Strangelove explains current challenges.

On the one hand, it makes sense that the voices of average internet users would help inform and quantify how our viewing habits are changing. Yet the fact that these comments are anonymous seems problematic. Any argument can be backed up by anonymous internet commentators. At one point Strangelove quotes “Baloo, an anonymous Internet commentator.” Yes, it may be too much to source Baloo, and find out who he or she is, and get their consent to comment on the record. But would it not be possible to find other people willing to go on the record and comment on their habits or preferences?

At a time when events such as VidCon, a convention for YouTubers, attract tens of thousands of makers, advertisers, broadcasters and agents, the absent voices of these independent creators of online video content feel like the missing link. Just as broadcasters are slowly coming around to televising extreme sports events and video game tournaments, chasing the crowds, and in turn the money, so too is the established world of broadcast looking to the success stories of the digital marketplace to reveal new strategies and best practices.

The superstars of Vine, YouTube and Twitch are not anonymous sources; they are, in fact, the new stars of the industry, eager to share their wisdom in exchange for greater audience reach. Strangelove acknowledges this shift: “Sites like Vimeo and Daily Motion enable film-makers to earn money through voluntary donations and pay-to-view and provide further examples of the online business models that are promoting more funding for independent video projects.” Acknowledging the growth of online audiences, he quotes journalist Jeff Bercovici, who suggests that “it’s a good time to be an independent filmmaker on the web.”

Post-TV could have gone from interesting analysis to essential guide for those struggling to figure out what to do next in the post-TV landscape if Strangelove had talked to those independent creators themselves, to find out why it is such a good time to be doing what they are doing, and what their own independent processes are.

Unfortunately, this book, like a lot of academic writing, lacks an evocative narrative. So it is sometimes unclear as to why our relationship with TV has changed. The story is there, along with a smart argument, but the author has not made enough effort to draw things out in a way that presents cause and effect in a domino manner than can inspire action and change. It is only by understanding our relationship with the media we use, and the platforms we engage with, that we can identify new solutions. Our collective love of TV, past and present, is inextricably tied to the human capacity and desire for storytelling, and the story of our relationship with content also holds the key to where content is destined, post-TV.

In an era when TV habits are changing, this kind of book needs to be accessible not only to scholars and academics but to practitioners and industry stakeholders as well. As television formats evolve or risk becoming obsolete, so too does the traditional way they are reviewed and analyzed.

There is no question that there is a very real need for more research, and more analysis of how our relationship with TV is changing. However that research and work has to be presented in a way that is inclusive of all creators, with an awareness and respect for evolving media publishing practices and standards, so that it is accessible and relevant to the young people who Strangelove claims will revolutionize TV and be the future of media.