I almost missed the Aereo announcement last week, because I was ensconced at VidCon, the annual YouTube-focused convention in Anaheim, Calif. There I was, surrounded by 20,000 12-to-20-year-old-girls searching for their favorite Web video stars, and traditional TV seemed as anachronistic as buggy whips and computer magazines.
But when I finally heard that the Supreme Court had shut down the groundbreaking digital video system, I was amazed by how universally joyful TV broadcasters and distributors were about the ruling and ensuing shutdown. Too bad they weren’t in Anaheim with me, because despite Aereo’s now-illegal Rube Goldberg-esque transmission technology, it offered a distinctive and revolutionary way for broadcast TV to remain relevant to younger viewers.
Unfortunately, most TV execs probably never had a chance to actually use Aereo. And that’s too bad, because the well-designed service delivered a unique and compelling way for traditional TV — still mostly watched on TVs — to build an audience among digital natives. I had a chance to use Aereo extensively when I spent a month in the Boston area this spring, and it delivered broadcast TV to the devices that most people under 30 use to view video — mobile phones and tablets.
Easy-to-use Web and mobile apps — which also started to show up on newfangled set-top boxes from Roku and others — made it simple to watch live TV on the go, or in any room in the house. They also let subscribers record favorite shows on Aereo’s own servers, which meant that a fan of “The Good Wife” or “2 Broke Girls” could watch them on their own time, in their hands or laps, and they made those shows as equivalently accessible as Tyler Oakley or Grace Helbig.
Don’t know Tyler or Grace? Again, if you were in Anaheim, you couldn’t avoid them. Every time one of them showed their face — either on the main stage in front of 10,000 fans, or as they signed autographs in the cavernous exhibit hall — a squeal so deafening, and so particular to teen girls, caused everyone to stop and rush toward their object of attention just to find out what the heck was going on.
To its credit, NBC had a booth focusing on “The Tonight Show,” as Jimmy Fallon is the closest thing to an Internet celebrity at the old-guard broadcaster. And to their credit, many of the big broadcasters are at least trying. I watched a VidCon panel where Rob Hayes from NBC talked about their efforts, including “NBC Playground,” which will bring two new Web-born comedies to the network, along with upcoming efforts around “Heroes” and “Saturday Night Live.”
The problem is that, for the most part, those shows will likely not be available in any meaningful way on the screens used by the audiences that are abandoning the big broadcasters in droves. Sure, you can get clips of “The Tonight Show” on YouTube, and at least some episodes of the broadcasters’ biggest shows on their mobile apps, websites, Hulu and (if you pay) on Hulu Plus, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. But it’s an incomplete experience — you can’t watch live, and you can’t record what you want and watch at your leisure, and you can’t discover series via social sharing and then go back and start watching from Episode 1 on the broadcasters’ own platforms.
In short, the experience pales compared to YouTube and other native Web video services that are setting the expectations and media consumption habits of an entire generation.
And now that the Aereo experiment is over, network executives will be newly emboldened to continue to circle the wagons and mostly keep doing business in the same old way — via traditional distributors and to the dumb devices that, when millennials do watch, they usually mostly ignore in favor of their favorite screens in their hands (disparagingly called the “second screen” by the traditional TV industry).
Unfortunately, they will continue to see their audience decline — and revenue along with it. The broadcast upfronts just concluded, and even though there was a slight increase in the rates charged to reach each viewer, overall revenue is likely to be down across most of the English-language broadcasters, due to declining viewership.
And even though New York Times reporter Stuart Elliott thinks the problem is cyclical, attributing the decline to “a couple of seasons without any breakthrough hits that generate the huge amounts of conversation among consumers that advertisers prize so highly these days,” I believe it’s structural. Those viewers aren’t coming back to the new shows, because many 13-to-30-year-olds just can’t be bothered to discover and watch broadcast TV in the archaic and stilted way it’s currently presented.
So what to do? If I were running one of the major networks, I’d be negotiating today to purchase Aereo’s assets, and then I’d move quickly to rebuild it as my digital delivery service. I’d push everything through it, both live and on-demand, and heavily promote and expand phone and tablet distribution.
But that’s not going to happen. The Supreme Court just quashed one of the few things that made me optimistic about the long-term viability of broadcast TV. And I just don’t see the vision or leadership out in the industry to embrace such a radical reinvention of the business. Which means that as the digital-native generation grows up, broadcast TV will become more and more irrelevant to a broad swath of the population. And that will eventually lead to their obsolescence.
“Cord Cutter” currently works for a major programming company, and has more than 20 years’ experience in traditional and digital media, including magazines, TV networks and Web video.