As the new TV season dawns, we need to realize that we're at the sunset of "television".
The business side of show business has had a year of turmoil and unbridled change that is going to continue to impact the entertainment industry on every level for a long time. At this moment, the new SAG contract has yet to be settled , broadcast networks are losing loyalty and relevancy with their audience, ad dollars seem to be in a holding pattern, the development calendar has been torpedoed, the upfronts were emaciated, and in February of 2009 we will see the end of analog broadcasting, pushing more viewers to cable and the internet.
The concept of scheduled programming is already fading into history. DVRs allow audiences to create their own schedules with no concern for networks or studios. Soon, viewers will graze across a much wider field of channels, a spectrum that will include digital broadcast, the Internet, satellite and cable. This audience of self-programmers and their money will have unprecedented control over what they watch, when they watch it and how they watch it. They will be able to customize and cherry-pick from thousands of sources to create their own personalized viewing day. Today I might watch local sports highlights and weather, the most recent episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Letterman's monologue and the top 5 YouTube videos of the day. Tomorrow, it will be something completely different.
If you couple the increasing audience control over viewing habits with the fact that, thanks to the internet, anyone with a camera, creativity, and persistence can build a global audience, you now have a programming marketplace of epic proportions. And the new content creators don't play by the rules. They can produce without selling their intellectual property to a faceless corporation. They can distribute without any gatekeepers. DVRs like TIVO and AppleTV can now directly download your favorite Internet shows. Independent producers now have easy access to find a mainstream-sized audience. The ad world is quickly realizing the power of audience control, which allows them to connect their goods and services to passionate viewers who have chosen from everything out there to specifically watch any one show.
Studios and networks are slowly beginning to recognize this trend of going directly to the audience. Local affiliates are becoming obsolete. Each viewer is getting more and more capable of consuming programming (and advertising) straight from the source. And we are beginning to cherish that level of control.
The future of TV for the next five to ten years is in the hands of the individual, both in creation and consumption.
It is an exhilarating time for those who have no access to the Hollywood machine and a terrifying realization for those invested in the status quo.
It's very upsetting news to middle class writers or actors, the artists who benefit the most from guild minimums and the recent labor unrest. Their show will not get a primetime rerun. It might be rerun on cable or the Internet -- a huge pay cut. Or, that studio-produced webisode they are writing or starring in might not even be covered by the guilds at all.
The answer to these problems is D.I.Y. Do it yourself. That's what Americans do best. Become entrepreneurial and compete directly with the networks that have employed you as "work for hire." Create a show and content that finds a niche audience that likes what you create. And it will be an audience that you can make money from directly through merchandise and advertising. It certainly worked for Joss Whedon and his new hit Dr. Horrible.
You can build to sell or build to keep. It can be shocking news to a major studio when they get a quick "no" to their offer to buy your show for a low six-figures, but it could be the best deal you ever turned down if you're making the equivalent to that offer every month. Selling out for low money and no cut of future grosses is going to be a thing of the past. You can develop your own fans without a studio marketing machine.
Studios do adapt. They survive. They reconfigure to the times. They'll seek out the independent creators making shows that people want to watch. We will evolve to a state where studios feel comfortable giving an artist the resources to create and then getting out of the way, because it will be in their best interests. Places like the BBC, HBO, and Showtime are already doing this. We just need more and better shows to appeal to larger audiences.
We are in the dark, predawn hours of a golden age of great television. Think of the mid-1960s, when studios were losing their way with audiences and were forced to turn the reins over to the crazy young filmmakers -- filmmakers who became the new establishment in the 70s and 80s. The audiences are waiting and the barriers are low. We just need to figure out who those new voices are, and how to help them reinvent Hollywood.
Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine are the co-creators of AskANinja.com and the co-authors of The Ninja Handbook.