Eww, Is The Internet The Future Of Television?

The New Yorker has a pretty interesting article this week about the history and future of YouTube. In summation, it talks about how millions of people all over the world watch incredible numbers of videos (here is a crazy fact: “Forty-eight hours of new video are uploaded to the site every minute”) but they haven’t managed to translate that into the same kind of media and revenue powerhouse of old media. Yet. Over the course of the next year, YouTube is going to be launching all these channels that will more closely resemble the TV model except that they will be programmed specifically for the Internet in the hopes that people will stay on YouTube for longer, which will thus make YouTube more promising to advertisers. So? Is this it? Is this the future?

One thing the article talks about is a transition from the “model of scarcity versus the model of abundance.” The idea is that television (and just Hollywood in general) is structured in limitation. They control the means of production and distribution, so we get what they give us, whereas the novelty of the Internet is that it is based on putting incredible amounts of content out into the world and allowing users to select what they want to watch/consume. One of the Hollywood people they talk to says this is a better model than relying on an executive’s gut feeling and the tremendous resources of time, energy, talent, and money that go into developing a movie or TV show with little to no regard for the demands of the market. Another Hollywood person presents the opposing view: “I can tell you what YouTube is not going to do—generate shows like ‘Friends,’ ‘24,’ and ‘C.S.I.’ The world of TV I grew up with, where hit shows threw off hundreds of millions for the creators and networks—that’s not going to happen.” Well, OK, so which is it? Is it a better system or a worse system? (This is, of course, operating on the assumption that we all agree that Friends, 24, and CSI are “good.”)

The whole thing actually reminds me of a drunken argument I had at a wedding last fall.

I think I may have written about this before, but basically what happened is that a friend who also works on the Internet asked me when we were going to have a web series or what have you that was as culturally meaningful as a TV show, to which I answered “never*,” at which point a third Internet person, who we’ll just call Kevin, because his name is Kevin, was brought in to argue with me when clearly this was a subject into which he had put a lot of THOUGHT and on which he had many OPINIONS. It was kind of like a scene in a movie where the hero (I’m the hero here, obviously) thinks he is entering into a fight with someone his size only to learn that someone altogether larger will be fighting him instead and then he GULPS. Not that I entirely agreed with what Kevin was drunkenly yelling at me, but it was certainly more intelligent than what I was drunkenly yelling back. The point is we were drunk. And congratulations once again to Mark and Meaghan.

What Kevin was yelling at me was basically what the New Yorker article is all about: the Internet’s looming importance/dominance in visual media. OK. But while I understand the idea of the Internet as a means of distribution, what neither he nor this article has been able to articulate for me is how the aesthetic transition will effectively take place. That doesn’t mean it won’t, it probably will, the world has changed you can feel it in the water, etc. But there are a few very big problems that no one is really addressing in their rush to talk about distribution channels and niche marketing opportunities. Yes, YouTube can provide a Horse Riding Channel for all of the horse riding enthusiasts out there, but that feels like pretty small potatoes. (Also small potatoes are these upcoming YouTube channels. Tony Hawk is doing a skateboarding thing? Snooze Alert. Shaquile O’Neal is doing a COMEDY CHANNEL? Haha. The time is now.)

First of all, let’s talk about how things look. Movies look good! TV looks pretty good, too, although it doesn’t look as good as movies. (Game of Thrones didn’t even look as good as a movie would have, and yet it was applauded for how good it looked, which was due in large part because it had an out-sized movie-level budget.) And do we even need to describe the production values of the Internet. The whole thing looks like it was filmed on a graphing calculator. That will change insofar as everything looks better and better as we move into an era of HD Everything. But the truth is, low-rent on the Internet is often preferable to high-grade. Quality production values are the first signs of something being fake and gay. This is one of the Internet’s charms, its insistence on authenticity and transparency, but it is also what keeps it–in its current state–from being a welcome home to broadcast-quality original content.

Watch the throne, indeed.

Then there’s the whole FREE thing. Producing good things requires lots of money, which is the exact opposite of the Internet’s ethos of getting everything for nothing because you want it and you want it now. By and large, at least in the world of television, that money comes from advertisers, which is the thinking here. If YouTube can get a larger slice of the advertising budget pie, then theoretically they could end up putting real money into producing quality content. I guess. But the road that got us from the Burma-Shave Sponsors Bela Lugosi’s Variety Hour: 1954 Christmas Special to Breaking Bad was long and littered with crap. Hell, it’s still littered with crap. The idea that “Madonna and her longtime manager, Guy Oseary, are developing a dance channel called Dance On” is going to get us to the next level of entertainment seems specious and depressing. Netflix just released the trailer for their first original series and it looks like a joke. The problem with running with the big dogs isn’t just that the big dogs won’t let you, but that they run so FAST.

Let me make something clear: I’m not complaining about the evolution of TV and movies towards some Internet Future. Or, at the very least, I’m certainly not strong enough to stand in its way. We definitely are watching things differently than we used to, or something, and computers are a big part of that, I’m sure, and blah blah blah IF I WANTED TO GO TO COLLEGE I WOULD PAY TO GO TO COLLEGE. Maybe the old models don’t make sense anymore. But you can’t just say that the new model is Tony Hawk On-Line. The reason that Hulu works is because people still want to see the things they used to watch on TV, they just want to watch them on their machines sometimes. People go to jail for illegally downloading movies because PEOPLE WANT THEM MOVIES SO BAD. The Internet takes itself very seriously, and fair enough, but as a person who likes to put these things in his eyeballs, I don’t see this:

As a viable replacement for this**:

This post isn’t any kind of declaration or anything. I’m not taking a position because if my work at Videogum and my life in general has proven anything, it is that I am not allowed to control anything of real value, I rarely even know what I’m talking about, and the future of business and/or entertainment is not visible through my crystal ball, which is actually a marble, which I had to pry from my dog’s mouth when she pulled it out of some trash. I’m not arguing against the New Yorker article. How could I? It was a good article and YouTube has some big plans, so what’s the argument? And I already conceded some kind of victory to Kevin at the hotel bar after the wedding. No, I am literally asking IS this the future of movies and television? SOMEONE TELL ME! I FEEL SO OLD AND STUPID!

In closing, that was a lot of words.

* Although I basically lost this argument, I actually stand by my answer to the question as it was posed. The Internet’s whole THING is audience fragmentation. People watch more television than ever before, but they have more options than ever before. No one is watching the same thing the way they used to (a pattern that the New Yorker article covers in more detail) and the Internet only magnifies that trend. So, the idea of a web series, or what have you, that is as culturally important as the must-see-TV of the moment actually goes against the whole POINT of a web series and GOOD GOD WHY AM I STILL HAVING THIS ARGUMENT?!
** It does seem worth pointing out that that fucking Fred video has 55 million views, while episodes of Mad Men only get, like, 1.4 million viewers. So maybe we SHOULD just all crawl into our coffins and give it a rest.