The Real Time Future of Television

Television, the platform, is having a bad year. There are lots of reasons: the economy, consumer control, audience fragmentation/atomization, etc. On the other hand, Television, the art form, is alive and well with more (albeit different kinds of) projects in production than at any time in history.

That being said, the long-term viability of big budget television is the cause of much angst. If audiences continue to atomize, can any given show make enough money to justify producing it? If consumers continue to transcode things they want to watch, edit out the commercials and make them available for free over the public Internet, will sponsors be willing to pay? If the most popular productions are the most pirated productions, is there any real future in production? Can free, advertiser-supported, Internet television continue with a fraction of the advertising avails and audiences of its broadcast counterpart?

One of the underlying issues is scarcity vs. ubiquity. On a closed network, any moment of time is a scarce resource. On an open network, no moment of time is a scarce resource. The immutable law of supply and demand tells us that we will never be able to charge for anything that is ubiquitously available. At least, that’s what the rulebook says.

However, I think the solution to almost all the problems related to consumer control of personal media consumption has been staring back at us from our television sets – we just didn’t see it.

Most people schooled-in-the-art will tell you that live programming such as news, weather, sports and events are, for all practical purposes, TiVo-proof. This isn’t strictly true, but if something is emergent, and the results are important, people tend to consume the media in real time. This almost always includes the associated commercial messaging. You can, of course, leave the room, talk to someone, play with your computer or do anything else you might think of during the commercial breaks — but this has been true since the ’50s. So, like I said, for all practical purposes, the commercials will play out.

Until consumers started to record television, TV was a real time device. No matter when the programming was created, it is always broadcast at specific times in a linear fashion. DVRs have changed that. When Jeff Zucker says, “The number one show at 10pm is TiVo,” he’s not kidding. This is the current state of the art — but it doesn’t have to be.

We have entered the super-digital age and now all television is digital. So why are we still broadcasting combined, fully finished, masters in real time? We don’t have to. It would be much, much better to serve individual streams of data that could be combined by the receiving technology to create custom formatted, device-specific pieces of content.


Let’s walk it backwards for a second:

Problem 1: There are far too many devices that can play back video for anyone to deal with. I produce MediaBytes, my daily news feed, in 46 different formats and I don’t cover even a tiny fraction of the consumer electronics devices that are out there.

Problem 2: There are far too many places to obtain copies of any piece of video.

Problem 3: It is very difficult to measure who is watching, where they are and what else they may be doing.

Problem 4: Location and time of day are critical data points for the proper contextualization of message management.

The Real Time Data-based Digital Television Solution:

Break the data down to its component parts and broadcast them separately. So, text, graphics, music, script, metadata, voice-over, picture elements would all be packaged as individual data streams and made available in real time.

Next, the industry adopts the “Tom Sawyer Paint The Fence Paradigm.” This calls for the creation of a database (for the content), APIs (application programming interface) so third party developers can get at the data, an SDK (software development kit) so third party developers can license (and pay for) their use of the content, and some modifications to the current commercial trafficking networks and measurement tools.

The immediate result would be thousands of passionate, interested parties jumping on the opportunity to create thousands of virtual DMAs with virtual networks that could all be advertiser supported at scale.

Of course, anyone could still record a finished piece and have their way with it. But, imagine a broadcast world where television stations were broadcasting digital data feeds and economically motivated third party developers were crafting consumer interfaces that our industry simply will never be able to afford to create. Consumers who can obtain an emotionally satisfying media experience are far less likely to spend their valuable time looking for workarounds.

The concepts of “relevance,” “engagement” and “conversations” all become meaningless when developers with enlightened self-interest are your partners. The business rules surrounding this kind of data-based, content distribution would require developers to build measurable messaging into the platforms they support. Partners who make money when you make money and lose money when you lose money make great partners! Stations and Networks would transmogrify into their true digital counterparts — platforms.

You can think of it as a real time Apple App store. Throw in a little real time web (like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) and you’ve got a serious media offering.

Studios have been wholesalers for years. They sell their programs to Networks who, in turn, package the shows for consumer consumption. It is abundantly obvious that Networks cannot afford to create all of the packaging that consumers now require (or are willing to pay for). We need a better, more cost-effective way to serve audiences that are growing in diversity and getting harder and harder to aggregate.

Problem 1: Too Many Devices — get third-party partners to pay you to modify your content to work with them.

Problem 2: There are far too many places to get video — turn the weakness into strength by getting third parties to pay you from all of the nooks and crannies of the media consumption world.

Problem 3: It is very difficult to measure who is watching, where they are and what else they may be doing — computers love data, build this functionality into the platform and the SDK.

Problem 4: Context is king — yes it is, and what could be more contextual than having a passionate partner create an application that is specific to a consumption form factor?

Real Time Data-based Digital Television is a viable solution. Broadcasting real time data in component parts can be achieved today with just a little bit of political will. Steve Jobs and a zillion other Silicon Valley companies have demonstrated how easy it is to create a passionate, motivated army of third party developers. To me, the answer to the television industry’s marginal cost, marginal gain problem has been staring us in the face since the transition to digital was announced. I just didn’t see it until now.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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