Control: part I
It's the end of another year. I can tell because all those "a look back" specials are looming on the horizon. Some occurred early, like Barbara Walters' annual Most Fascinating People special. Now, I know Walters engenders respect from women of a certain generation for paving the way for contemporary TV newswomen, but please. Camilla Parker Bowles as the most fascinating person of 2005? I can think of several people enormously more fascinating than Prince Charles' main squeeze.
First and foremost would be Cindy Sheehan, the mother who lost her son in Iraq and dared to ask: What did he die for? Her simple desire for answers ignited an anti-war movement that was slightly, if not begrudgingly, covered in the mainstream press.
Speaking of the press, 2005 brought the death knell for the broadcast networks' evening news. Dan Rather was strongly encouraged to resign for reporting supposedly faulty information on President Bush's National Guard service record, temporarily replaced with an even older codger. Peter Jennings died of lung cancer. Brian Williams replaced Tom Brokaw. With the slight exception of Jennings' death, this all happened with little fanfare when compared to the hoopla that occurred when Rather took the reins of the CBS Evening News from Walter Cronkite (not to mention the hoo-ha that ensued when Connie Chung was pushed out of her co-anchor spot because, well ... Rather apparently didn't want to work with a girl; what goes around comes around).
In late night, Ted Koppel also left quietly, turning over his highly regarded (but ratings impaired) Nightline to three younger talking heads. Only those old enough to recognize the passing of an era made a peep, and a meager one at that. What used to be the only source of national and international news was doomed when cable news sources, running 24/7, allowed viewers to catch the news when they wanted. That doesn't mean the quality is better. It's all about audience access.
Which brings me to the other fascinating event of 2005: a giant push toward audience control of what they see, when they want to see it. Now, don't think for a minute that the broadcast and cable networks are not fighting tooth and nail to retain control. But unlike the music industry, TV has decided to embrace new technologies that cater to consumer desire rather than squash them, while at the same time scheming for ways to make money. Just look at these recent partnerships, as reported by Jennifer Armstrong in the Entertainment Weekly Dec. 16 issue: ABC is working with "Apple's iTunes and the new video iPod to provide downloads of shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost for $1.99 an episode." CBS and Comcast Cable have partnered "to offer select shows on demand (CSI, NCIS, Survivor) for 99 cents starting in January." NBC and DirecTV are getting together to sell Law & Order episodes and other series. In January, AOL launches a "broadband network to stream old shows like Alice, Falcon Crest, and Welcome Back Kotter." In 2006, TiVo releases software allowing PC users to download "recorded shows onto an iPod or Sony PlayStation Portable."
There are other burgeoning programs out there, including MyTV ToGo, which caters to PC users, and Elgato, which works with Mac users to download content onto their computer screens and eventually, video iPod devices. All very exciting, but if anyone were to ask me, I'd say this: Vanguard trumps vintage.
In the industry trades, TV execs try hard to convince that if a series doesn't have a living room audience first, it won't be successful. I say wake up. When Jack & Bobby was offered via AOL prior to its WB premiere, the response was massive. That the show did not do well on the air is not a reflection of its quality (it was critically praised by people like me), but more a reflection of the limited berth space on regular TV. I suspect there is a large and growing audience who would gladly get their TV programming from something other than a TV, if they knew how, where, and for a reasonable cost. Would I pay $1.99 for unseen episodes of Arrested Development? Yes! However, I don't want to watch it on my teeny-tiny phone screen. And who wants leftovers? Welcome Back Kotter? On DVD yes; on TV to go, no.
Next week: Cable a la carte; scrambling for the brown viewer; decency, children, and legislating content; and anything else I find myself hyperventilating about.
As always, stay tuned.