Undercover Economist

February 22, 2013 7:29 pm

Changing channels: why TV has had to adapt

Technological change has swept through broadcasting as surely as it has through music and newpapers
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger of a remote control over a television set©Raymond Biesinger

What does Strictly Come Dancing have in common with Mad Men? Not a lot, you might think – and before hearing Joshua Gans speak recently at a seminar on broadcasting, I would have agreed with you. I now think otherwise.

Technological change has swept through broadcasting just as surely as it has through music and newspapers. In the case of broadcasting, however, the process has been more gradual. In the 1970s, British television was funded either by advertising or by the licence fee, and whatever you watched, you watched when it was broadcast. Both these facts changed long before most of us had heard of the internet.

The two technology-based changes have been the emergence of subscription-only channels, and the development of time-shifting technologies to allow TV to be consumed on demand. First there was video but now we can watch the television on the internet, and pause or fast-forward with digital recorders.

Gans, an economist at the University of Toronto and the author of Information Wants to Be Shared, argued that time-shifting in particular was doing interesting things to the economics of broadcasting. First, consider advertising revenue: time-shifting makes it easy to avoid adverts, which undermines the traditional ad-funded model. However, there are some events that most people demand to watch live: sporting events, of course, but also talent shows and reality TV. These are events that our friends and colleagues will talk about and if you don’t watch live, you will miss out. Such programmes remain attractive to advertisers.

Gans argues that a great deal of information has a social context: we want to recommend what’s good and we need to hear recommendations to figure out what to watch. One only need contemplate “Gangnam Style” or Fifty Shades of Grey to see that this is true, but the story is older and more subtle then we tend to acknowledge.

Ponder the resurgence of complex, almost Dickensian story arcs in the unexpected form of the television series. From The Sopranos to Lost, 24 to Breaking Bad, over the past decade or so, the extended, sophisticated narrative has come to a TV near you. Previously only soap operas would attempt such a sprawling form, and then only on the understanding that anyone could switch on at any time and grasp what was happening. The idea of putting on a series that becomes baffling to occasional viewers was regarded as commercial suicide.

But while time-shifting technology has pushed ad-funded television towards live events, it has also provided a foundation for complex storylines. Thanks to DVDs and digital recorders, people can catch up on what they’ve missed. Because the intricate plots are addictive, they are a natural fit with DVD box sets or cable TV.

Game of Thrones or Mad Men rely on social networks just as surely as Britain’s Got Talent does, but in a different way: if the first three episodes were amazing, word will spread and people who initially missed out will catch up. In the first case, the social pressure to watch live is used to foil the ad-skipping time-shifters. In the second case, it’s time-shifting that makes it possible for word of mouth to build.

Some formats sit uneasily with either model. A standalone documentary or sitcom offers neither the addictiveness of the extended series, nor the immediacy of sport or reality TV. The golden age of the sitcom is, perhaps, behind us. And it did not escape my notice that the kind of news coverage that really matters – thoughtful, analytical, investigative – also fits poorly. Perhaps in the future all TV news will take the form of either epic narrative documentaries, or helicopter chases.

Tim Harford is the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less”

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