Though the imminent death of television has been proclaimed many times, it has not become extinct and is not likely to. But the reach, and influence, of mass free-to-air broadcasting has been slowly declining for decades. Twenty years ago everyone watched the same shows. Since then the audience has become much more fragmented due to narrowcasting via cable and satellite. The internet "is becoming central to our lives" and will replace television's key role in the home, argues Observer writer John Naughton in The age of permanent net revolution (registration required):
Broadcast TV is being eaten from within, by narrowcast digital television - in which specialist content is aimed at subscription-based audiences and distributed via digital channels. But waiting in the wings is something even more devastating - Internet Protocol TV (IPtv) - television on demand, delivered via the internet. And it's coming soon to a computer screen near you.
The trouble for broadcast TV is that its business model depended on attracting mass audiences. Once audiences fragment, the commercial logic changes. And new technologies like personal video recorders (PVRs), which use hard drives rather than tape, enable viewers to determine their own viewing schedules and (more significantly) to avoid ads - think of Sky Plus, think of TiVO.
As the CEO of Yahoo! said recently at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the era of 'appointment-to-view' TV is coming to an end. This doesn't mean that broadcast TV will disappear, incidentally. That's not the way ecologists think. It will continue to exist for the simple reason that some things are best covered using a few-to-many technology. Only a broadcast model could deal with something like, say, a World Cup final. But it will lose its dominant position in the ecosystem, with profound consequences for us all.
The internet will take its place. Note that I do not say the web. The biggest mistake people in the media business make is to think that the net and the web are synonymous. They're not. The web is enormous, but it's just one kind of traffic that runs on the internet's tracks and signalling. And already it's being overtaken by other kinds of traffic. According to data gathered by the Cambridge firm Cachelogic, peer-to-peer networking traffic now exceeds web traffic by a factor of between two and 10, depending on the time of day. Already the signs of the net's approaching centrality are everywhere - in the astonishing spread of broadband, for example, together with the rise of online retailing, streaming media, Google and the explosive growth in internet telephony.
Naughton explains why the internet is set to take over, using blogging and digital photography as examples:
The next generation will live in an environment dominated by the net. What will that mean for us - and for them? When thinking about the future, the most useful words are 'push' and 'pull' - they capture the essence of where we've been and where we're headed. Broadcast TV is a 'push' medium: a select band of producers (broadcasters) decide what content is to be created, create it and then push it down analogue or digital channels at audiences which are assumed to consist of essentially passive recipients. The couch potato was, par excellence, a creature of this world.
The web is the opposite of this. It's a 'pull' medium. Nothing comes to you unless you choose it and click on it to pull it down on to your computer. You're in charge. So the big implication of the switch from push to pull is a radical increase in consumer sovereignty. We saw this early on in e-commerce, because it became easy to compare online prices from the comfort of your own armchair.
Another big change is that it has become much harder to keep secrets. If one of your products has flaws, the chances are that the news will appear somewhere on a blog. Ask the company that makes Kryptonite bicycle locks, or Sony BMG - still licking its wounds from the drubbing it received at the hands of bloggers over the spyware covertly installed by its anti-copying technology. The emergence of a truly sovereign, informed consumer is thus one of the implications of an internet-centric world. The days when companies could assume that the only really demanding customers they would encounter were those who subscribed to Which? are over.
Another implication is that the asymmetry of the old push-media world is being overturned. The underlying assumption of the old broadcast model was that audiences were passive and uncreative. What we're now discovering is that that passivity may have been more due to the absence of tools and publication opportunities than to intrinsic defects in human nature.
Take blogging - the practice of keeping an online diary. Technorati, a blog-tracking service, currently claims to be monitoring nearly 29 million. New blogs are being created at the rate of about one a second. Many of them are merely vanity publishing with no discernible literary or intellectual merit, but something like 13 million are still being updated three months after their initial creation, and many contain writing and thinking of a very high order.
What the blogging phenomenon suggests is that the traffic in ideas and cultural products isn't a one-way street - as it was in the old push-media ecology. People have always been thoughtful, articulate and well-informed, but until now few of them ever made it past the gatekeepers who controlled access to publication media. Blogging software and the internet gave them the platform they needed, and they have grasped the opportunity.
The other remarkable explosion of creativity comes from digital photography. Every day, millions of photographs are taken, but until recently an understandable response would have been 'so what?'. But Flickr.com allows people to upload their pictures and display them on the web, each neatly resized and allocated its own unique URL. And it has grown like crazy. The most fascinating aspect of it is that users can attach tags to their pictures, and these tags can be used to search the entire database. I looked for photographs tagged with 'Ireland' and came up with 122,000 images! They were mostly holiday and casual snapshots, but here and there were some truly beautiful images. Ten years ago, those snapshots would have wound up in shoeboxes, but now they can be - and are being - published, shared with others, made available to the world.
And this is something new. It shows that our media ecology has changed out of all recognition already. And my guess is that it's just the beginning.We ain't seen nothin' yet.