How TV Networks Need to Change

Conan O’Brien mentioned the rumor on The Tonight Show that Comcast may buy NBC. I have no clue how true this may be, but I can’t imagine a Comcast-owned TV network advancing the state of the art. TV is moving online. It’s inevitable. What we need is a network that can lead others online, not sit back and try to calculate how little it can offer on its website while bittorrent trackers get more efficient at posting HD videos.

Because, let’s face it, you don’t need cable and a TiVo to watch commercial-free HDTV, just an RSS reader and a bittorrent client. At least ekth TiVo you have to see the ads flick by ad you fast-forward padt them. TV networks have an opportunity to compete with bootleggers, but I can’t see them taking it.

Here’s what I would do if I were somehow, with no experience nor business expertise, given the job of setting a network’s online direction:

  1. Establish an avenue to sell advertising for online episodes. Could be the same ads as on regular TV, but there would be online-only ad opportunities, and some targeted things to replace the local-interest stuff you get on affiliate stations.
  2. Redesign the network’s web site so that, during prime time, it’s showing exactly what’s on the network. There should be no difference between watching NBC on a TV or a computer. Just tune in. The website would have the same commercial breaks and everything, and it would be in HD if the viewer’s connection supported it.
  3. Work with YouTube to provide inline viewing of the exact same videos as on the network’s own site instead of waiting for fans to post their own copies except without our ads.
  4. We wouldn’t mess with any technology that tries to make commercials un-skippable. Yes, some people will fast-forward through them. That’s just something sponsors have to learn to live with. Commercial breaks still, if nothing else, provide natural act breaks.
  5. Offer all of our original programming as free downloads in H.264 format, with ads as part of the files. Each show would have an RSS feed that would post new episodes at the same time as they air.
  6. Provide handy links for viewers to subscribe to the HD (or SD, for iPods) podcasts for free in iTunes (or another newsreader), or buy them, commercial-free, from iTunes if they want to.
  7. Keep the files online in an easy-to-access archive so that people can go back and watch old episodes and new viewers can catch up.

Idea being people can have shows free with ads since they’re already getting them from bittorrent sites without the ads, or buy them from iTunes, or wait and buy the DVDs even (though who really sees us watching things on plastic discs in a few more years once hard drive space gets a little cheaper?)

People want to watch TV programs how they want to watch them. Many still like sitting down and watcing their shows at prescribed times as broadcast. Others want to download them to watch the next morning on their cell phones while they ride the bus. In Back to the Future II they had sunglasses with video screens in them. Who knows where we’re going? But it doesn’t matter, because if the networks would give us the files in a timely manner without any copy protection, we’d figure out the rest. I promise that people will live with having commercials in the files. Likely they’ll just fast-forward through them, but laziness will beat most everything else. No matter how good bittorrent trackers are, they wouldn’t be able to compete with free videos from the source. And after ten years or so, those ads will look quaint and we’ll enjoy seeing them when we go back to wath the reruns from our personal archives. That fans want to fill up hard drives with old episodes of your shows is something you should want to encourage, not stifle.

TV networks need to give up the idea that it’s their job to program how and when we watch TV and just focus on giving us shows we want to watch. That’s the hard part, after all.