urx unit loader Fear the Future    Or Not

Today’s cuppa: Barry’s Irish breakfast tea (at breakfast — feeling kinda conformist today)

Just read a long but interesting piece from Portfolio.com (via Wired.com) on the future of television, which starts by talking about former ABC entertainment chief Ted Harbert, who now works for the Comcast Entertainment Group, which includes Style (home of one of my favorite shows, "Clean House") and E! Entertainment Television.

Here’s an excerpt:

…When Harbert talks about television, it’s with the sober clarity of someone who has looked at life from both sides now and has seen that only one business model is working. Cable networks target just those viewers who want what they have to offer. Broadcast networks want everyone. And the business of wanting everyone has never been worse. At the end of last season, ABC, CBS and NBC reported their smallest combined audience ever, an event that has become a gloomy yearly occurrence. Meanwhile, cable — counting both basic channels and pay services like HBO and Showtime — now receives 55 percent of the total viewership.

It may be time to perform an autopsy on network TV, which some of pronounced officially dead at age 60, a victim of a lifetime of big spending, hard living, and bad planning….

I recommend reading the rest. It’s a sobering assessment of the business of television. In tone, it’s much like the equally — if not more — sober assessments of the business of newspapers.

I keep coming back to a few basic thoughts:

When the money’s rolling in reliably, nobody except the accountants thinks much about where the money comes from — and in the cases of broadcast TV, basic cable TV and newspapers, it’s from advertising, which ultimately means it’s from you. Advertisers don’t buy ad space or time for their health; they buy them hoping to reach eyeballs attached to people with money in their fists who will buy the product. Decisions about media may be made from the top down, but decisions on media’s survival are made from the bottom up, every time you watch a show or read a story, see an ad and buy something. If you don’t do that, the whole machine grinds to a halt.

Some people, forced for the first time in their careers, to think hard about where the money comes from, don’t take it with very good grace. Others do. Those are the ones that will survive. Those that don’t are like hothouse flowers, that are lovely and thrive very well when protected from the harsh world outside, but which wither when set out in the cold, the wind and the noonday sun. Hothouse flowers are the opposite of weeds, which make the best of whatever’s available. For better or worse, today’s climate seems to favor weeds more than hothouse flowers.

No distribution system for information and entertainment has ever disappeared, each one just morphed into a new form with a different focus. We still have word-of-mouth, live theater, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, movies, radio and television (OK, stone tablets may have vanished, but there is graffiti). Digital distribution hits each of these things, but in the end it’s still just another distribution system. The information and entertainment are what matter. People still want words, pictures and sound, they just may want them in a different format. Content is, and always has been, king.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. You get what you pay for (and when you pay nothing, what do you get?). Those who think that news, music, TV shows and movies magically appear should think again. Creating information and entertainment costs money. Those that produce them have to pay rent and buy groceries too. You don’t assume gasoline or electricity or hamburgers or sneakers are free, why would you expect information and entertainment to be? You either pay for them one way or the other (and no, Internet access fees don’t count), or they get cheaper and crappier and eventually disappear.

Notice how many bloggers and Websites depend on news stories (frequently dead-tree-media stories), movies and TV shows to give them fodder for their blogging and linking. How many blogs about someone’s kids and puppies do you really want? What do you do when there’s nothing to link to?

Not telling you all what you should do about this, just raising some questions and offering some thoughts. The rest is, as always, up to you.