Why TV will be around for a while

Suppose you were predicting the future of media, politics, and culture in 1963.  You would note that television was clearly the medium of the future, of the young.  Radio was dying – unable to compete against the new and superior technology.  Ad dollars were moving en masse to TV, and TVs were becoming more affordable and higher quality all the time.  You would point to JFK’s TV-assisted debate victory and declare that radio would have almost no role to play in the new world – everything would be based on images.

Well, here we are, fifty years later.  Who is the leading political figure on the right?  Rush Limbaugh – a physically unappealing radio demagogue.  And who’s the leading cultural figure on the center-left?  Ira Glass – host of the radio show “This American Life”.  And what would our prophet of 1963 have made of podcasts – people listening to radio shows of lower production quality than available in the ’60s, even when huge Hi-Def TVs were available?  Somehow the medium that was supposed to die, didn’t.

In 2013, advertising experts claim that TV is doomed, and the future is mobile.  But they are making the disruptor’s error – they see an exponential change, but overestimate how far it will go.

So what can save conventional TV from obsolescence?  A few things:

1) Big screens are big.

People like big TVs, and they’re prepared to pay really big money for them.  Until Apple comes up with a way to make iPads that you can unfold and put on your wall, you can’t do big on mobile.

2) The mass market is massive.

We hear so much about microtargeting and the long tail these days that we forget that there are plenty of advertisers that just want to reach a lot of people.  TV does that, and in a finely-tuned brand-safe way.  And, even better, people want to watch what everyone else is watching, at more or less the same time, so they can talk about it, like a book club or a movie opening.  And best of all, everyone likes the same things anyway.  You would only need ten different well-chosen TV shows to make sure that 95% of people in the U.S. loved at least one of them.  With fifteen, you could get 95% of the world.

3) TV just works.

Press the on button, and something will appear on your TV.  If you’re in the right demographic and do this at the right time, it’s pretty likely to be something you like.  And that’s all you have to do.  No passwords, no search terms, no network connection, no playlist, no seeing what your Facebook friends recommend – just press one button and there it is, and many highly-paid people work long hours to make sure that you will like it.  What could be simpler?  What could be better?

Now, you might object that these obstacles could be overcome – companies could produce videos for iPads with high production values and mass-market appeal that could be quickly and easily seen on a big screen with minimal selection required.  This will be a revolution, but of the Animal Farm variety, where at the end we will look from TV network to internet media company, and not be able to tell which is which.  Or, as I expect to hear at advertising conferences shortly – “Small Screens Good, Big Screens Better”.


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