The Future of Content, Part II: The End of Television (Or, Has ESPN – And Everyone Else in the Sports TV Wars – Already Lost the Future?)

By 2050, television as we know it now may be a thing of the past.

Of course, we said the same thing about movies when TV itself came along, which is why I don’t want to make it a definite. But here’s the difference: everyone who brings you television is jumping headfirst into this future like lemmings off a cliff (aside from the negative connotations of that analogy). TV manufacturers now allow you to watch YouTube and other Internet videos, cable companies now heavily emphasize their “on-demand” offerings, and three of the four major television networks have teamed up to put virtually all their shows on the Hulu website. All of these have the effect of rendering superfluous the traditional network schedule. You don’t need to wait for a programmer to tell you when to watch an episode of your favorite show; you can watch it when (and where) you want.

Of course, if this renders the traditional network schedule obsolete, it shouldn’t take much to see that it renders the networks themselves obsolete as well. The networks exist because in order for a TV program to exist in the past, it needed to be broadcast at a certain time for people to see it, and spectrum – broadcast or satellite – was limited enough that networks were needed to clear time for those programs. Now, to someone who watches their favorite programs on Hulu or “on demand”, the association of a program with a network seems arbitrary at best. At some point, watching shows on the Internet could become mainstream (and profitable) enough that producers – possibly even including major studios, even those associated with networks – may increasingly forego distribution via the networks and set up their own Web sites for distribution of their shows, or otherwise distribute through YouTube or other such sites – a process already in its infancy. (And I’m still convinced HTML5 will eventually make sites like YouTube obsolete too.)

One aspect of television programming, however, will be resistant to this process. Most TV programs do not have a particular reason to be broadcast at a particular time, but live events are inherently restricted by when they happen. The process of moving to the Internet has begun here too, as streaming capabilities are popping up all over, but it is an order of magnitude more technically advanced and needs to be able to deal with a large number of people accessing the stream at once in order to catch on – we’re a long way away from the Super Bowl being able to move exclusively to streaming.

But once it does happen, the networks will be completely superfluous here too, as teams and leagues decide to cut out the middleman and produce their own streams of all their events. It’s an open question whether they’ll want to, as they’ll no longer get the extensive rights fees the networks pay them and may have to take on the cost of production themselves, but sports events are loss leaders for the broadcast networks, their sizable audience usually failing to pay for the cost of production, and their point is mostly to direct that audience to other programming. Once that other programming dries up, the networks won’t be as interested in sports anymore. As for cable networks, much of the profit that comes from airing sports comes in the form of the mark-up on the subscriber fees they charge, something teams and leagues will want to get in on the action on, especially if those cable networks try to increasingly become streaming services.

In other words, as streaming becomes more technologically advanced and common, teams and leagues may increasingly decide they don’t need a sports network like ESPN and may decide to stream their events themselves. A streaming service like ESPN3 is little more than a middleman that degrades the brand of the teams or league and takes money that could go directly to the team or league. That explains why last year, the Outkick the Coverage blog could write a provocative post entitled “Why ESPN Has Already Lost the Future“, which explains the situation better than I do here, though I’m hesitant to say all this will happen within a decade.

But ESPN isn’t the only loser: every outlet that airs sports could find themselves left behind by teams and leagues increasingly deciding to go it alone. For the past year, I’ve been tracking the efforts of NBC, Fox, and others to challenge ESPN’s hegemony over the world of sports, when the same force that’s most likely to ultimately break that hegemony will render all their efforts in vain in the same fell swoop. As a result, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether any of it has really mattered, whether it’s all much ado about nothing.

There is one place where “networks” may still have a place, and that is in the coverage of breaking news (or even some form of newscast). But here, there’s not really that much difference between a news network (CNN, MSNBC, or Fox), a broadcast news agency (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS), or things like the AP, the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, or even blogs. The Occupy Wall Street movement even set up its own UStream channel to control, to some extent, its own message and coverage of the protests.

As such, I think there will ultimately come a day where the medium of television itself will be rendered completely superfluous and will be folded into the larger Internet. I see a day where “televisions” are sold that are really super-large netbooks adapted for video, streaming and otherwise. I see a day where the FCC ultimately decides that broadcast spectrum is an artifact of the twentieth century that is mostly going unwatched and reclaims all of the remaining spectrum, with most of it going towards providing free wireless Internet, and (I hope) a good chunk of it being reserved to improve the streaming capabilities of the entire Internet.

And I see a day where we gather around and tell our kids how, before there was the One Great Network, there was this “proto-Great Network” called television that ruled our lives for over half a century, just as the baby boomers heard about how their parents listened to the radio before there was television. Yes, television really did make another medium obsolete, which makes it all the more plausible it’ll now suffer the same fate.

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