Digital Conference Panel Provides a Shortsighted Vision for Television’s Future

By fsantikpul / / Today was the launch of the Ad Age Digital Conference over in Midtown and looking over the schedule I knew there was one presentation I could not miss. As a guy with a deep interest in futurist thinking and all forms of media, I knew that “Beyond the Box: Cord Cutting, Content, and the Future of TV” was going to the highlight of my day. It’s a subject ripe for analysis, with a burgeoning crisis about what shape it might take in the coming years. I realize that the volatile landscape between television and the internet isn’t exactly every ad man’s favorite talking point in this day and age. It’s a touchy area when ad space is drying up, and commercial breaks are becoming something that tech savvy consumers are perfectly able to skip at their own discretion. Sure, one can point to the small percentage of the population that fits that tech-savvy demographic, but the one undeniable truth is that it’s a young set of people. In a panel meant to discuss “The Future of TV” in front of a room of incredibly smart people in the industry, you would think you’d see a glimmer of potential. I was shocked how far from that we got. I want to give credit to the Digital Editor of Ad Age, Michael Learmonth, who actually seemed to be trying to poke and prod these industry insiders to show some innovative thinking on the subject. He led with a question basically asking how long it might take for the consumers to get what we’ve been asking for: the ability to watch the channels we want, on the devices we want, when we want to watch them. It’s a basic concept, running with the standards of the information age… Something that I’ve spent a lot of time considering myself. Then came the hammer that set the tone for the entire presentation. A representative from Microsoft’s Xbox (he wasn’t a listed speaker, so unfortunately I did not have his name) said that, “A la carting is many years away.” Mike Bologna from GroupM rounded it up to a solid decade before he felt that we might finally see unbundled cable content. There was a perception that while cable providers are starting to panic, Networks aren’t. It kept striking me how for a panel apparently about the future, everyone seemed to be thinking in very shortsighted terms. An interesting point was raised by the co-founder of Boxee, Idan Cohen, who spoke briefly about how we don’t watch programs because of what channel they are but because of what they are. People aren’t interested in NBC or AMC, but rather 30 Rock and Mad Men. And that kind of individual content breakdown is certainly part of what consumers are moving toward, much in the same way that people don’t see movies because they’re produced by a particular studio. But this simply led to talk about individual content purchases through iTunes. Something that doesn’t quite qualify as future-talk. I think the real issue with the discussion I witnessed was the idea that watching television online is a purely auxiliary activity. The idea that the fastest growing method of absorbing media is secondary is patently ridiculous. The basic concept of television has always been to bring the spectacle of the cinema into our homes, and it has evolved in a very sensible path. But as our devices get smarter and we expect more from them, how quickly will the cable box become obsolete? Networks might not be worried just yet about their revenue drying up, but if cable falls, how long will they be able to stand on their own? The idea that the system isn’t collapsing is only going to hurt people. I was looking to hear about what the Future of Television might hold, and instead I saw an adherence to the broken past. Someone is going to figure out a way to change the whole system and it’s going to happen fast and soon, and it’s clear that nobody is going to expect it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.