Islands in the Stream



Last Halloween, my wife and I dressed up as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, the odd-couple meth-cookers of AMC’s brilliant drama, Breaking Bad. Clad in a bright yellow HazMat suit, I ventured forth with the trick-or-treaters, with visions of high-fives from other chaperons who shared our gallows humor. Instead, what I got was a lot of David Spade impressions from the old SNL skit, “And you are…?”


Despite its critical status and seven Emmys, the assumption that our Breaking Bad homage would be greeted with knowing reverence was itself badly broken. Then, it struck me: If the television-viewing audience used to resemble a single, unified continent, it has now drifted apart into many small islands inhabited by devoted tribes. Today’s mass-media audience can perhaps best be summed up by invoking another cult favorite, appropriately island-bound: Lost.


With the ability to watch whatever one wants whenever one chooses, the fundamental structure of TV programming based on a schedule set by the broadcaster is not just threatened; the very nature of networks, cable and satellite providers, and yes, this thing called television advertising, may be on the brink of obsolescence.


“Managed dissatisfaction” is the term Netflix CEO Reed Hastings uses to describe what he considers an outdated content model. In simple terms, a phalanx of programming is distributed through cable and satellite, and consumers wade through the mire, selecting that which is most relevant to them. In the past, viewers would then be forced to wait to watch the shows that interested them most, and pay a lot of money for a bunch of content they couldn’t care less about.


“The cloud” above is raining content, the water is rising, and the ground on which advertisers stand is shrinking.


But as author Daniel H. Pink suggests in his book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, the paradigm has shifted from caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) to caveat venditor (“seller beware”). With set-top boxes such as Apple TV and Roku and online platforms such as Hulu and Netflix that funnel content to viewers, consumers can simply choose to watch only what they care to—and now do so on an à la carte basis, without all the irrelevant fluff. And as TV advertisers that have relied on the traditional interruptive model now understand, despite the occasional viral sensation or annual Super Bowl advertising derby, their messages are largely buried under that scrap heap.


This explains in part why Hastings recently gave Hollywood director David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network) $100 million to develop a new series starring Kevin Spacey entitled House of Cards. Without testing a pilot, Netflix committed to two 13-episode seasons of the political drama, with the entire first season available for streaming from its first day of its release. There is not a lot of room for advertising in that model.