Television and the Internet are merging with such whiplash speed that viewers for a while will have trouble keeping track of all the little technological boxes on top of their sets, much less the countless thousands of shows they can watch, entertainment executives told a TV producers' convention Tuesday in Miami Beach.
"With more and more content out there, it becomes hard and harder to find,'' said Nick Buzzell, a producer at NBTV Studios, which makes shows for TV and the Internet. "With all this digital technology, there's still consumer confusion. . . . [And] if the consumer is confused, none of it's going to work.''
Buzzell was speaking at one of several panels on the convergence of TV and the Internet held on the second day of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) meeting at the Fontainebleau Hotel.
With a plethora of devices from video-game consoles to DVD players now able to liberate the Internet from computers and carry it onto television sets and an increasing number of companies that provide movies, TV shows and original content via broadband rather than broadcast, viewers are headed for uncharted territory, the executives agreed.
"The explosion of online video has just begun,'' said Ted Sarandos, who acquires movies and TV shows for Netflix. Read my full story in Wednesday's Miami Herald.
When broadcast television draws its last raspy breath on some date that's much sooner than you think, the obituaries will note that 2010 was the year the death watch began. Scarcely a day went by without some brawl about the comparative merits of Hulu, CBS.com, Google TV, Netflix, Apple TV --all platforms delivering TV programs via broadband rather than the airwaves. Meanwhile, watching those shows on a cellphone or computer -- once an indelible sign of marginalized nerddom -- broke into the mainstream.
And at television stations all over the nation, general managers itchily, twitchily pondered a future where networks deliver their products directly to viewers via the Internet, leaving broadcast stations without either a product to sell or an audience to buy.
It didn't help that broadcast television is still suffering fallout from the disastrous four-month strike by writers during the winter of 2007-2008. Virtually no breakout shows have emerged since then, while older hits like Law & Order and Lost have stumbled to their graves.
For all that, there were plenty of bright spots for viewers. The year's Top Five:
1. Dexter (Showtime): When it debuted in 2006, it was harder to say which seemed less likely: that Dextercould make a sociopathic serial killer into a sympathetic character, or that the premise of a serial killer who killed only other serial killers could be stretched beyond a single season. But the show has done both brilliantly. This season, with Julia Stiles joining the cast as the bloodthirsty love interest of Michael C. Hall, was the most thrillingly creepy yet.
2. The Walking Dead (AMC): Zombie movies! Zombie books! Zombie video games! Shuffling braineaters have conquered American culture so completely that even Sears put up a website hawking smart (but reasonably priced!) zombie wear. But oddly, zombie domination had not extended to TV until The Walking Dead -- a grisly, harrowing tale of life in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world -- debuted at Halloween. It shattered basic-cable ratings records like -- well, like zombies breaking open bones in search of marrow.
3. The Good Wife (CBS): This drama about a political wife left to pick up the pieces after her husband is caught in a sex-and-corruption scandal could have been a chick-flick nightmare. Instead, it is consistently the most engrossing series on broadcast TV. And the failure of star Juliana Margulies to win an Emmy will go down as a blunder epic even for Hollywood's most moronic awards.
4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO): Think of this epic, darkly told tale of how Prohibition spawned organized crime as Sopranos: The Roots.
5. The Pacific (HBO): A loving but anguished tribute to the men who fought on the bloody island hellholes that comprised World War II's Pacific theater. Filled with gore and madness, The Pacific reveals the awful truth behind a soldier's letter home: "There are things that men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul."
Changing Channels today welcomes all you jillions of disconsolate, aimless Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channel views who've been shuffling around like zombies since you lost access to your channels through AT&T U-Verse early Wednesday morning. Don't worry, guys! This blog, with its obsessional pursuit of ever-racier photos of Jennifer Aniston and Dana Delany, a relaunch of NBC's American Dreams and a Swanson's TV dinner Hall of Fame (first member: enchiladas), is even more more fun than the heartwarmingest Hallmark movie about romance after divorce or the death of a pet. Why, even Keith Olberman is frequent visitor! (He's the one in the trenchcoat and dark glasses, over in the corner. Don't make any sudden moves around him -- he's a biter.)
The loss of your channels was a result of the increasingly hardball nature of negotiations between producers and service providers over the fees paid for programming. Hallmark and AT&T have been negotiating frantically since August 1, but talks broke down Tuesday night, and at midnight Hallmark pulled the plug. Your channels might be back soon, but then again, they might not. When the Versus sports channel got into a fight over money with DirecTV, it took six months to get it straightened out.
The good news is that you Hallmark fans are probably going to have plenty of company around here. The deal between Time Warner Cable and Disney expires on Sept. 2, and unless negotiations take a sudden turn for the positive, Time Warner viewers are going to lose access to the entire Rodent Empire: ABC, ESPN, Disney Channel and everything else Disney owns.
Life is full of agonizing choices. When we go home tonight, crack open a brew and kick back after a long day, what should we watch? The new Comcast channels praising the immortal wisdom of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Or the new YouTube channel extolling the multiple virtues of Kim Jong-il? Well, I guess that's what TiVo was invented for.
My Herald pal Bridget Carey has an interesting story in Tuesday's paper about Sezmi, a service that combines over-the-air television with on-line feeds of a handful of cable channels. Personally, I'm dubious that Sezmi is going to catch on; a service that offers so few channels will appeal mostly to people who watch little or no TV, yet the price ($149 per television set start-up costs, plus a $5 monthly fee) is way above what anybody is likely to pay just to watch the evening news once in a while.
That doesn't mean that on-line TV viewing isn't the future. When I talk to college journalism classes, the vast majority of students tell me they don't have cable service, and a startling number don't even have TV sets. Instead, they watch their programming at sites like Hulu.com. Meanwhile, network executives get all twitchy with glee at the prospect of eliminating local affiliates, the expensive and balky middlemen in getting their programming to the public. When somebody figures out an easy, viewer-friendly way of getting on-line feeds into a television set, TV as we know it will be gone in a flash.
Let's play America's newest game show, How Screwed Are You? First question: Do you get your television through AT&T's U-Verse system? Yes? And are you a Mad Men fan? Yes? Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! I mean, a loser! You are sooooo screwed. The cold war between AT&T and Rainbow Media, which owns Mad Men's AMC cable network, is about to go hot -- and you're collateral damage.
Rainbow, which also owns IFC and WE, is trying to hike the rates that AT&T pays for its programming. AT&T is suggesting Rainbow go pound sand. They've been in a standoff for weeks now, with no apparent sign of progress, and their contract expires at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday. Unless somebody blinks, all three channels will disappear from AT&T U-verse at that time...and there's no guarantee they'll be back before Mad Men's fourth season kicks off on July 25.
The threat of blackouts is increasingly common these days as everybody plays hardball over how much distributors (cable systems and the like) have to pay producers (networks). To complicate matters, more and more distributors are getting into the content business themselves, which puts them in a position to deny programming to their competitors. That's exactly what AT&T says is going on here: Rainbow Media is owned by Cablevision, which battles AT&T U-Verse for subscribers.
"It’s unfortunate that Rainbow Media, owned by Cablevision, is clearly not negotiating in good faith, is trying to charge significantly more than the average of what our TV competitors pay for these channels, and is acting in a way that harms competition and limits consumer choice," AT&T said in a press release issued Wednesday. (If you've always wondered what it would be like viewing a giant conglomerate like AT&T as a populist warrior for the little guy, check out the company's new psy-war website.)
These blackout threats often get settle at the last moment, or at worst, after a few days. On the other hand, a similar confrontation between DirecTV and the Versus sports channel went nuclear last year, keeping Versus off DirecTV's satellites for seven months -- erasing an entire season of college football games and most of a season of NHL hockey. Not to scream fire!in a crowded home theater or anything, but Versus is owned by Comcast, a DirecTV competitor. Sound familiar?
Speaking of college football, ABC and Time Warner Cable 's cable system are already exchanging death threats over their expiring contract, which expires on Sept. 2. And if Comcast succeeds in buying NBC and all its cable channels, this stuff will probably seem like kindergarten hair-pulling compared to what follows. Meanwhile, you AT&T U-verse subscribers might want to start kissing up to neighbors with cable if you're hoping to watch Mad Men.