There is a lot of niche content on TV (read: cable or satellite). Tons of it. But everywhere I read about TV and the long tail phenomenon, TV is automatically categorized as “mass media.” Well, if anyone has ever watched grainy live shuttle footage or late night Chinese news broadcasts, you know that TV has already drifted quite a ways down the long tail. It might not be the Internet of Video, but it also isn’t just a fat head.
Now, this seems kind of strange to me. I’ve always considered cable and satellite to be a pretty expensive way of moving video around. And not just because all that infrastructure is so expensive (it is), but because of the opportunity cost of all those customers. I mean Comcast has 21 millions subscribers. That’s a lot of people looking at your aggregated content (8 hours a day on average, which is also crazy). It seems kind of a waste to be occupying valuable time and channel slots for “Jade Starbiz.” (it’s in Cantonese, so I’m not sure what the show’s really about.) I mean, if Time Warner is right in describing the evils of a la carte cable, these niche networks don’t even pay their own way, but are instead subsidized by the higher traffic networks. It would seem that TV, in its current form, should have more pressing scarcity issues.
But what really creates scarcity on TV is not bandwidth limitations, it’s:
- Time limitations imposed by broadcast schedules: certain hours of the day, like 5PM to 11PM EST, are ideal viewing hours. Those hours are worth far more than those available during 3AM to 6AM EST, on almost every network (demand simply outpaces supply).
- Consumer inability to easily find shows that he or she might like: time/network grids essentially suck as a way to find shows that might be interesting, leading you to gravitate towards certain channels that most frequently provide you with shows you like.
So, in effect, certain channels have issues with scarcity, while others have bandwidth to burn. Now, TiVo and similar devices are hot on the trail of the first problem. This should eventually alleviate the inherent time scarcity within high-demand channels, but the larger problem of finding content perpetuates the false scarcity that exists horizontally throughout the entire channel lineup. This would seem the even larger issue. But even with TiVo's recommendations and Wish Lists, Yahoo!’s TV Guide and TMS data, finding great content on TV outside mainstream channels is still very difficult. It would seem that cable and satellite carriers have an inherent interest in maximizing the value of their entire spectrum, but it would appear that this interest has its limits. (This even applies to VOD where the economics should be most compelling for Comcast. Yet Comcast seems to have mastered the art of delivering what you want, when you want, without actually helping you find it.)
The worst part about this whole situation for the consumer is not that they’re paying too much for content (although they might be), but rather that they’re missing lots of content that would make their TV experience much more compelling (and far more personal). So, rather than settling down for the third rerun of some sitcom on ABC, they might find something really compelling on a channel they’ve never watched before. Combine this with TiVo time-shifting capabilities, and, all of a sudden, TV is a very different experience. A much better experience.
I’m a firm believer that TV will look radically different a decade hence. Brand new networks (if they’re still called that) will be serving thousands of niche audience communities through the magic of inexpensive IP-based digital distribution. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. We’re talking about a massive change in people’s viewing habits that will evolve over years, not months. These people need a bridge to this long tail future. I’d be very surprised if broadcast TV (with a few evolutionary enhancements) didn’t span a significant measure of this chasm.