Before we discuss how everything we know about television has changed forever, let’s start with three recent, apparently unrelated, and essentially mundane anecdotes:
(1) Last month, Apple unveiled yet another new iPod, this one capable of playing video. At the time, it seemed underwhelming—little more than another Bravo, Steve Jobs! moment and a chance to watch U2 videos on a screen three inches high. As an ancillary benefit, however, Apple started selling commercial-free episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives on its iTunes Website, along with select music videos, for $1.99 each. Three weeks later, iTunes had sold its 1 millionth such video.
(2) This summer, Universal did something kind of weird: It released Serenity, a sci-fi movie based on a poorly rated TV show, Firefly, that had been canceled after eleven episodes. Making movies of hit TV shows has a self-explanatory logic, but there aren’t too many movies based on TV flops. But I saw Serenity and liked it a lot, so I went out and bought the entire run of the Firefly TV series on DVD, watched it, and liked it a lot as well.
(3) Last week, Fox announced that, owing to scheduling conflicts, it planned to put its new series Prison Break—which spends the whole season following one man’s compelling, if slightly absurd, effort to break himself and his brother out of prison—on hiatus until late May. The show’s fan base howled all over the Internet, and for good reason: Prison Break is premised on a puzzle that takes all season to solve, with each episode a mini-cliff-hanger. One fan-generated suggestion to Fox was, why not move the show to a less-competitive time slot, such as Friday, where die-hard fans can still find it? I’ve been recording the show on my DVR (TiVoing it, you might say, except the folks at TiVo don’t like you to use that word unless you own, you know, a TiVo) and enjoying each episode at my leisure. So naturally, my first reaction to this debate was, Wait a minute. Prison Break airs on Monday nights?!
What do we know about TV? Here’s the basic model: Networks air particular shows at particular times on particular nights; say, Commander in Chief on ABC, every Tuesday at nine. These shows are available to viewers for free, subsidized by intrusive blocks of ads—a leftover from the days when TV was magically plucked from the air by your rooftop antennae, like radio with pictures. A TV show’s ratings determines both its sustainability (on the network schedule) and its profitability (in terms of how much its advertisers can be charged). These ratings are calculated by following the habits of a small number of representative viewers, tracked by the Nielsen company, whose preferences are then extrapolated for the entire audience. The prime economic directive of TV, therefore, has always been, TV doesn’t sell shows to viewers: It sells viewers to advertisers.
It’s an interesting business model, one that came about by accident, and one that is now entirely obsolete. If you have a DVR—and in New York city, 20 percent of Time Warner’s digital customers do—you can watch shows whenever you like; the shows are, in effect, untethered from their time slots. (Exhibit A: the recently redesigned TV Guide, retooled around the assumption that no one uses a TV Guide anymore.) So she watches Prison Break on Monday at nine, he watches it Monday at midnight, and I watch it Wednesday morning at eight, before work, over a bowl of oatmeal.
But what if she, he, and I aren’t enough viewers to keep a show alive on the network? No problem: We’ll just buy the DVD. Fox’s critically praised 24 was nearly canceled after a disappointing first season in 2002—its low ratings owing, in part, to the difficulty for the audience of jumping into the high-concept show midstream. So, Fox released the first season on DVD just before the second one premiered (the first time anyone had released a DVD of a show that early on), and it sold so well that it renewed Fox’s commitment to the show, which went on to become a hit. Fox’s Family Guy actually was canceled, then the DVD came out and sold about 2 million copies, and Fox did something no network had done before: It revived the canceled show. Of course, networks are quick to point out that DVD sales still pale next to ad revenue (which, in turn, pale next to syndication, TV’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow), but the precedent’s been established: People are paying directly for shows. And the popularity of DVDs, both culturally and as a source of found money for studios, is not only rescuing faltering shows but altering the content of new ones: It’s one reason we’re seeing so many new “arc” shows that follow a single storyline over a whole season, à la Lost, Prison Break, or the recently ordered NBC show Kidnapped, about a single abduction.