Turn On. Tune In. Take Over.

Photo: James Wojcik

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.

From top, Lost and 24.Photo: Courtesy of Fox

As long as shows were reliant on ads for their revenue, the total number of viewers mattered. Now, not so much. In fact, whereas broadly popular shows prospered under the old model, niche shows with hard-core fan bases prosper under the new one. Shows like 24 and Firefly sell a lot of DVDs. Shows like Yes, Dear and Two and Half Men do not. Studios (which make the shows) and networks (which buy and air them) are still fond of traditional, mass-appeal programs such as Two and a Half Men because of their high ad rates and lucrative afterlife in syndication. But both of those markets seem in jeopardy. Once you’ve got an overflow of your favorite shows stored up on your DVR (and your iPod and your DVD shelf), why watch reruns of Home Improvement on TBS?

Okay, so maybe you don’t have to watch a show at a particular time anymore. And maybe a show doesn’t need a huge audience to be financially viable. It’s still TV, right? It’s still half-hour- and hour-long shows that came through a box in your living room? Sure—for now. That’s assuming you don’t download the latest episode through the BitTorrent Website or buy it from iTunes to watch on the subway to work. For years, networks have trembled at the idea of selling individual episodes because it fundamentally undermines the way TV works—or used to work. But after the success of ABC’s bold toe-in-the-pool partnership with iTunes, NBC and CBS last week announced plans to sell their own shows through video-on-demand services for 99 cents an episode. And suddenly it’s not so hard to envision a future (by which I mean two years, not twenty) in which you buy most of your TV shows the way you do, say, magazines—subscribing to some, picking and choosing others. At which point there’s no more need to stick to the half-hour/hour-long model on TV than there is for magazines to publish each issue at precisely 100 or 200 pages.

Before we venture further, this might be a good time to point out that, when it comes to technology, I’m not an early adopter. I fit more comfortably in the category known as “late majority” (iPod, yes; BlackBerry, no). So the fact that I can now DVR my way to my own private TV schedule and download ad-free episodes to my computer (a machine I barely understand) says something about the future of TV. Specifically, that pretty soon I, and he, and she, and you, won’t need one. Sure, there will be a big screen on your wall and sometimes you will watch shows on that. There will be a little screen in your pocket and sometimes you will watch shows on that. And there may be a medium-size screen you carry in a handbag, and sometimes you will watch shows on that. (And maybe, someday, there will be a holo-chip in your head, beaming shows right into your brain.) Connected to them all will be a small box into which you download, and store, the shows you’ve decided to buy.

TV came to us like a kind of visual cookie dough, dull but pleasant. We could take it or leave it, but we’ve had very little control over the recipe.

Of course, tech evangelists love to trumpet brave new futures—Buy all your dog food at pets.com! Purchase clothes worn by your favorite stars while you watch them on TV!—assuming that, just because we’re able to do something, we will. (This argument is proved fallacious by that unused ab exerciser you once bought because “you can use it while watching TV.”) Each new technology takes a while to find its use, as we, the actual users, pick it up, consider it, and figure out what it’s really good for. The Internet has proved great for uniting geographically disparate people with common interests (eBay collectors, MacGyver fanatics, balloon fetishists) and not so good as, say, an Alpo clearinghouse.

We’re living in just such a murky moment—stepping into the future, even as we try to find our footing. And while this has led to all sorts of tedious arguments about how TV producers will make their money—a question of interest primarily to TV producers—the matter of how it affects you and me is one of more pressing relevance. This is especially true given that, in the old model, the viewer was little more than the last stop in an assembly line: the “end user,” in the jargon of the suits. TV came to us like a kind of visual cookie dough, dull but pleasing, and extruded into our living rooms. We could take it or leave it, but we’ve had very little control over the recipe.

In the new model, the audience is right there in the kitchen. The Internet already provides gathering places for fans to praise or rant about their favorite shows—sites far more influential than, say, the letter-writing campaign to save Cagney & Lacey, because they happen in real time, interactively, often with TV producers responding or lurking all the while. (Why not, given that the sites are, in essence, the world’s largest focus groups?)

All of which leads to an enticing possibility: Let’s say that Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly, wanted to bring the series back to air. (Though “back to air” is a TV phrase now as anachronistically quaint as “switching the dial.”) Let’s say he found a million Firefly fans online—and, trust me, they’re not hiding—who were willing to pay, say, $39.99 each for a sixteen-episode season of Firefly. (Not an unreasonable price, given how many people pay about that amount for full seasons on DVD.) Suddenly, Joss Whedon’s got roughly $40 million to play with—and he doesn’t need a network. Or a time slot. Or advertisers. He can beam the damn shows right to your computer if he wants to. There’s even a mini-precedent for this: The online phenomenon of “ransom games,” in which a board-game developer sets a price (usually something minuscule, like $1,000), then, once he’s received that amount in pledges from strangers, creates the game and releases it for free.

But the idea of TV funded by the audience conjures another, less sunny scenario. After all, there’s already an entertainment-delivery system that funds itself through mini-contributions from millions of viewers: It’s called the movies, which aren’t exactly undergoing an artistic golden age. Furthermore, wherever democracy blooms, mob violence is only one step behind: How happy will Joss Whedon be when the $39.99-paying legions, assembled at wesavedfirefly.com, demand that a killed character be resurrected or that an irritating plotline be written out of the show?

Either way, TV’s days as a benign dictatorship—a little bread, a lot of circuses—are over, and the revolution is nigh. TV studios may still milk the old sources of revenue, but the fundamental economic law has been abolished—TV is selling shows to viewers—which, in TV terms, is like saying that the law of gravity is null and void. Everything’s up in the air. Including you, O Viewer, finally freed from your easy chair, ready to march into the streets and maybe—just maybe—drag your TV along with you.

Turn On. Tune In. Take Over.