Legacy TV: Why the (Annoying) Reticence?

As is quite commonplace these days, the story begins with Fox News.

Last month, Sean Hannity, a less wrinkly version of Bill O’Reilly, launched an impertinent tirade against his “guest”, Yousef Munayyer of the Palestinian Center in Washington DC, over his presupposed stance on the recent conflict in Gaza (what Munayyer’s actual views were, Hannity didn’t allow us to find out).

It was a bruising interview where Hannity threw all the punches before declaring himself the winner.  Whilst it would be unfair to say this was a typical Fox News interview, it would be folly to regard the encounter as an isolated incident. In a time gone by in a media landscape hitherto, Hannity’s self-adjudication may have stood unremarked.  However the beauty of today’s media landscape is that it allows anyone from anywhere a right of reply.

Step in Russel Brand. The drug-addict turned comedian turned guest-editor of the New Statesman/part-time revolutionary perhaps known best for his marriage to Katy Perry (an insult that Hannity later made) decided to dissect Hannity’s “interview” and post it on his YouTube channel The Trews in which he acutely explicated the techniques that Hannity used to belittle and demonise Munayyer.  It was the classic case of a hero coming to the underdog’s rescue – a recipe that Internet community knows and loves.

What’s interesting about how this all played was noted by Munayyer the next day on Twitter, writing:

Ratings for @seanhannity the night I was on? 1.9 million

Views for @rustyrockets video slamming him? 2 million

Yes, the Internet had won again.

To many of us, this is hardly a great insight, nor is it surprising. But what is surprising and keeps popping up with such comparisons is the question as to why TV hasn’t tried harder to stop its own supplantation.  Why aren’t all TV channels and shows available online, for live stream or later download?  Why hasn’t TV moved onto the Internet to be available 24/7 on mobile devices to retain some relevance in modern life?

This question has a somewhat straightforward answer for shows that are produced for paid subscribers or cable networks.  In starting with Fox News an as example, I should point out that in the US, and for the US shows played on Australian free–to-air channels, this content typically comes from pay TV, a service for which more than 90% of Americans subscribe.  That such shows cannot be made available anywhere at anytime on any device makes commercial sense, but there are some allowances that would be viable such as allowing such shows to be viewed on any computer or device on live stream encrypted for local use. If advertising pays the media’s bills, and primarily it does, why not expand viewership rather than directing viewers onto YouTube, Netflix or worse still, to torrent websites?

Deflecting to YouTube and other streaming services has been the tactic used by the late night comedians in the US, making skits to go viral to popularise their show and personality. Take Jimmy Kimmel’s “I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy” (over 32 million views on YouTube) or Jimmy Fallon’s air drum-off between Will Ferrell and Chad Smith of The Hot Chilli Peppers (over 23 million views on YouTube) as examples. The knowledge that the Internet reaches a vaster audience almost instantly has kept TV relevant, the live ratings paling in comparison for all the reasons that people typically don’t set the alarm to sit down to watch TV anymore.

But what is TV anymore? With the advent of smart TVs and the resurgence of television series that are often downloaded and watched on a laptop, this might just be the biggest conundrum facing couch potatoes.

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic tries to answer this by distinguishing smart TVs, Apple TV, Android TV, etc. by what it they provide: more Internet video and less live television.  He calls this “Internet TV”, which easily allows for “TV” streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.  TV, as it is traditionally thought of, he calls “Legacy TV” (in many ways he is a couch potatoes’ philosopher).  Thompson’s main contribution however lies in his comment that Legacy TV and Internet TV are not locked in a zero-sum game. It’s not the case that Legacy TV cannot move online nor that Internet streaming services will go under as a result. The evidence shows that television series have had a renaissance whilst at the same time TV ownership has plummeted.  The answer, at least where Legacy TV is concerned, is not to fight this duel to the death; the answer is convergence.

Sticking with the US for a moment – because it is a fascinating case study on so many fronts – last June the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, banned a company called Aereo Inc. that proposed a solution to this problem.  Instead of paying $80 a month for cable only available on your TV, subscribers to Aereo only had to pay $8 to watch cable live or recorded on any electronic device.  It did this by installing tiny antennas across regions and transmitting TV content recorded onto a cloud that users could access.  The problem that the court and broadcasters had was that Aereo was essentially transmitting copyrighted content that it was not paying for.  Despite big TV gaining protection from the courts, it remains unclear whether broadcasters will use this moment as an opportunity to move content online on their own terms.

The dominance of the free-to-air channels in the Australian context makes the question as to why such convergence has not occurred much more pressing.  Apart from the potential aforementioned commercial issue of overseas shows being too widely available, why haven’t Channel 7, 9 and 10 fully migrated online?

One response is that on the whole, Australia’s Internet capabilities aren’t up to it and that a lack of bandwidth especially in rural areas means that many rely on free-to-air TV in its current form.  I haven’t seen the figures and perhaps these factors outweigh the cost of moving online; however, considering that most Australians live in cities and tend to be connected with a mobile device, it seems like a no-brainer.  As in the meantime we seem to tolerate ads on Spotify and Facebook which generate massive revenue, broadcasters could certainly benefit from this.

The recent World Cup coverage by SBS is the best recent example of the convergence of Legacy TV with Internet TV in Australia.  During the group stages when both matches were on simultaneously, my housemates often had the Legacy TV running side-by-side with an Internet TV showing the other game – often switching between views and admiring the optional stats bar underneath.

If nothing else occurs, the World Cup coverage has set the standard for sports viewing and hopefully when it comes to other big events such as the Olympics, the other networks will catch on (so we’re not forced to only watch the swimming or cycling).  According to SBS’ data, they “delivered about 750% more internet traffic than any event… previously broadcast” by the network.  Unsurprisingly, the convergence paid off for SBS and expectations were lifted.

With it becoming easier to circumvent the limitations of TV broadcasts, other networks will need to move in the same direction if they are to keep relevancy and ratings.  The answer: Legacy TV meets Internet TV.  I’m sure the philosophers can come up with name for it. In the meantime though, I’m creating my own. I call it: “TevNet”.