As I sit here, patiently waiting for the FiOS installation to be complete at my fiancée’s apartment, I can’t help but think about the massive effect it’s going to have on our entertainment consumption. But more specifically, I’m thinking about how my entertainment consumption has changed over the past few years, due in no small part to the senseless and otherwise counterintuitive anti-consumer actions that companies have taken to prevent people from enjoying their content.
Right now, we are in a transitional state for entertainment. People are spending more time online in social communities and experiencing media from thousands, if not millions of different sources, and the Internet has inspired regular people to create content and share it. More importantly, the companies that give us a large part of the content we enjoy are observing this sea change and want to monetize it, and for good reason. Content can zip around the world online in seconds, and being online opens a dialogue between provider and consumer that simply didn’t exist before. Media companies can now instantly gauge how people react to their products, which is tantamount to their discovery of the Holy Grail. Untold amounts of money get funneled into focus groups and audience analysis for this very reason.
Ironically, although unsurprisingly, these same companies are resistant to this idea of their content being available on the Internet. It took an extremely long time for them to even accept the iTunes model, and it’s been immensely successful for all parties. Music, movies, and television are all readily available through the iTunes store, proving that most people – most – will pay for something if you make it easy enough to access and readily available for them (read: organized, searchable, low barrier to entry).
There is, of course, a subset of the population that will always turn to BitTorrent or other “pirate” methods to obtain media. Entertainment companies want to grind this phenomenon out like a spent cigarette, but they fail to realize that it is this community that does all the innovating, and this community that figured out how to push huge amounts of data around the world with a startlingly easy amount of effort. Many have speculated that the file sharing protocols BitTorrent uses would be of great use to the entertainment industry, if they’d only get behind them, and support them as opposed to fighting natural technological progress tooth and nail, at every turn.
Part of the reason people continue to engage in this behavior is because it is so unimaginably difficult for an everyday person to do what they want to with most of their media. Sure, you can rip CDs into iTunes, but you can’t do that for DVDs. Nope, you can rip them legally, but the act of circumventing the encryption of the disc content is illegal according to the terms of the DMCA. So you’re technically allowed to back up your videos, but only if you know of some kind of binary alchemy that gets the video off without touching the encryption. Impossible. Furthermore, I can’t legally take a movie I purchased on a physical disc, rip it, shrink it, and watch it on my iPhone without breaking the law. I’m supposed to buy another “iPhone ready” copy – of something I already own. This blatant disregard for both honest, paying customers and the shifting needs of consumers at this point in time is insulting, illogical, and ultimately obnoxious. Think about buying a shirt that you were allowed to wear to work, but if you want to wear it to the supermarket, you can’t. You need to buy the same shirt again, slightly different – the “supermarket compatible” version of the garment. It’s fundamentally insane.
The important fact to remember is that the move to ubiquitous, legal Internet content availability is not only inevitable, but it’s already here. Sites like Hulu have made enormous inroads in the Internet world by working directly with content providers, in this case NBC and Fox (and most recently ABC) to bring the content directly to the masses, in a palatable, ad-supported structure. Here’s where things get interesting, however. In a world where ad money flows based on archaic metrics like Nielsen boxes, the Internet becomes a finitely quantifiable entity. When a network sells ad time now, they tell advertisers that they have X million people that they assume are tuning in, based on the extrapolation of data derived from those Nielsen systems. In a time when Google Analytics makes keeping track of your mom’s blog in minute detail not only possible, but relatively simple, this kind of disingenuous statistical manipulation only serves to further weaken a system that is already feeling cracks in its foundation.
The mathematical constant in this equation is greed. Greed fueled by a logic set that is firmly rooted in another time, and only applicable to a culture that is indistinguishable from the one we live in. If I record a show on a DVR, I always jump commercials. No question. If I watch on Hulu, I am forced to sit through a few commercials, but they are fairly unobtrusive, very short, and I don’t even mind them. So why is it that my Internet “eyeballs” are less valuable than the broadcast TV “eyeballs”? Simple – they know exactly how many people are watching – or not watching, as the case may be – online. Broadcast TV, by the very nature of those metrics, does not know, and hence, can continue in an increasingly failing business model, charging money for ads people aren’t watching, and losing viewers in the process, as people move to other distribution methods.
Case in point: if I can see the last five episodes of 24 on Hulu, and have never seen another single episode, yet want to get involved in the series, and perhaps ultimately begin watching the regular broadcast because I fall in love with it, why can’t I see all the back episodes on Hulu? Wouldn’t Fox rather I sit through six or seven year’s worth of episodes and embedded ads (which I happily would, by the way) than not? I’m not buying the DVDs, nor am I purchasing all the seasons on iTunes. I could rent them from Netflix, a company that is successfully (albeit slowly) bridging the gap between old and new distribution channels with their movie streaming model, but I’m not doing that either, because I’m done dealing with physical media, if I can help it. What I want is to be able to turn on my computer, go to Hulu, and see my episode. Period. No complications, no jumping through hoops, no waiting. I get what I want, instantly, and they get my attention, compliantly watching advertisements I would otherwise ignore, avoid, or not see at all. Instead, I see this, at the top of the Hulu 24 page:
We can offer five current episodes on a rolling basis.
We are currently cycling through Season 1, posting 5 episodes to start, adding one every Tuesday and taking down the oldest as we do so.
It just doesn’t make sense. So unless I happen to sync my life with the schedule Fox is allowing Hulu to use, I can’t see what I want, when I want it. It’s like missing broadcast episodes all over again. It’s absolutely ludicrous!
The world is changing, and peoples’ needs are changing with it. If you force people to stick to something they don’t want anymore, and don’t offer a better alternative, you face two choices: either they abandon you and go somewhere else entirely, or they continue to get your content through the method they prefer, which is sometimes illegal, but easier. Entertainment companies need to embrace these new distribution channels and listen to the voices that actually are consuming the content, not their internal, sycophantic analysts. As for me, I’ll be catching last night’s Dollhouse season finale on Hulu later, just as soon as the FiOS guy gives me the thumbs-up.