CKL's HotSheet
What Non-Aardvarks are Pondering

By Curtis C. Chen

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June 1, 2002

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In the last year, I've bailed out three different friends who missed a TV show they wanted to watch. (It was Buffy the Vampire Slayer in all three cases, and it was a TiVo failure every time, but that's neither here nor there.) And every time I dub one of those tapes, I think about how much TV has to change if it's going to survive for much longer.

TV's current content distribution model is absurd. It's the tail wagging the dog. Why should I have to be at a certain place at a certain time to see a particular show? Hell, I can rent movies and watch them whenever I want. Why should TV be so much more inconvenient? I even have to watch the damn commercials, for crying out loud.

Sporting, news, and other live events are exceptions, but for something like a half-hour comedy, a program that's produced in advance, why shouldn't I be able to watch it when I want? If I want to see Friends, if I'm willing to watch ten minutes of ads for twenty minutes of show, why shouldn't I be able to choose when I watch it? And why shouldn't that require no extra effort on my part?

People are willing to pay for video entertainment, and they're willing to-- wait for it-- pay per view. The problem right now is that the technological infrastructure doesn't exist to allow a workable microbilling system, which is, I believe, what's required to convert all television to PPV.*

Imagine, for a moment, that you couldn't buy a book and read it at will, but instead had to wait until a certain day and time, and then had to sit down and read the entire book in one sitting, without interruptions. Ridiculous, right? But TV asks the same thing of you, and you do it. I suspect this is why some people despise TV: it asks you to go to a lot of trouble for what is, frankly, a totally frivolous benefit.

TV today is like a store with no shelves or cash registers. The store wants to sell you their widgets, but they can't inventory the widgets or actually charge you for them. So instead, they sell ad space on the outside of the widgets, promising the advertisers that millions of people will see their ads, and then give the widgets away for free-- in fact, they hand them out the door continuously, and if someone doesn't take a widget right away, it gets thrown into the garbage. And now the store complains that they're losing money because people don't look at the widget ads closely enough.**

It's the American way, I guess: nobody is too stupid to hire a lawyer.

My point, and my prediction, is that the days of "streaming" TV are numbered. PVRs like TiVo and Replay are the harbingers of a new era where greater user control is not just possible, it's essential. TV networks, movie studios, and other giant media corporations want new technology to only benefit them, often at the end user's expense. And that's not going to happen.

It may take several generations, but in the end, convenience and usability will win. They always do.

* The networks and studios will also whine about needing greater security to prevent piracy, but that's a less important issue by several orders of magnitude. I mean, you're giving the shit away for free now. How can anybody steal something that's free? Don't complain because you chose a bad business model that's no longer sustainable.

** Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner's notion that there's an implicit contract between broadcasters and viewers-- that we watch commercials to "pay" for television, and "[a]ny time you skip a're actually stealing the programming"-- is patently absurd. It's a name-calling FUD attack with no legal or logical foundation. Grow up, Jamie. (Complete Kellner interview:


On May 28, as part of an Emmy Award campaign, Paramount Pictures stuffed subscription issues of Daily Variety with a promotional DVD of "Once More, With Feeling," the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from last November. (If you're wondering about the timing: nominating ballots will be mailed next week.)

As expected, several of these DVDs have shown up on eBay. One of them is already up to $182.50. And as much as I love Buffy, and acknowledging the fact that I have, in the past, paid a pretty penny for entertainment media imported from overseas, I refuse to bite on this one.

It's not just the exorbitant prices or the cutthroat competition of online auctions. Yes, it is a DVD, which is almost certainly much better quality than the VHS copy I taped off my satellite dish broadcast. But that's not why the auction prices are soaring. The bidding is ridiculous because these items are considered collectibles.

I once saw a documentary show about the U.S. Mint, which included a segment on coin collectors. Various mints around the world actually produce special coins which are not circulated, but sold directly to collectors at conventions and trade shows. And there's a big market for coins which were ruined in production and can't be circulated-- coins with chipped edges, patterns stamped off-center, or similar errors. Errors. People are willing to pay even more for what would otherwise be considered garbage.

What, exactly, engenders the mindset which causes people to value such things? If a car comes off the production line with a bad transmission, it gets scrapped. But if a coin or a stamp is produced with errors, it's considered a "collectible." Bizarre. Maybe people feel like they're getting away with something, seeing something they're not supposed to. But it still seems way overpriced.

I guess that's what really irks me-- that by buying into the concept of "collectibles," you acknowledge the producing corporation's power to arbitrarily limit your access to their product. Collectibles are such only because supply is artificially reduced to inflate demand. Paramount and Fox could have put that Buffy DVD on the open market and made huge profits. Would one person be willing to pay $200 for it? No, but 10 people would be willing to pay $20 for it. And the studios themselves would be getting the revenue, not some guy on the black market.

If there's one thing the Buffy Powers That Be should have learned by now, it's that you can't stifle demand by choking the supply. When The WB pulled "Graduation Day, Part 2" off the air in June, 1999, because of Columbine, fans got bootleg tapes from Canada (with creator Joss Whedon's blessing, no less). DVD box sets of the first four seasons of Buffy are currently available in Europe and Australia, and you can bet they're coming to America. You can even find the original 30-minute pilot presentation through peer-to-peer file sharing networks.

The moral of the story for movie studios and television networks is this: Listen to your audience. If you don't give them what they want, they'll take it anyway. Your audience is smarter than you are. Write new contracts, negotiate new deals, but do whatever it takes to meet that demand, because you're losing money and making enemies every day you don't.




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