Four Weird Things the Internet Is Doing to Our Understanding of Television

People seem really intent these days on fusing television with the Internet. On one level this makes no sense. Television technology works just fine and we all understand how to use it. We’re also in the midst of a golden age when it comes to programming; I can’t remember another time when there were this many good shows on. Also, television advertising rates are enormous compared to the Internet. There are people on YouTube who have more subscribers than top network sitcoms have viewers, yet they earn a minuscule fraction of the revenue. Television, as an industry, is strong.

On another level, however, I understand the motivation. When it comes to delivering audio-visual content to a wide audience, the Internet has lowered the barriers to entry so far that anyone with even the dinkiest camera can become a major broadcaster. The television industry may face a crisis of overhead when a large number of scrappy upstarts deliver comparable value with almost no fixed costs. Also, there are some aspects of the television business that the Internet simply does better, specifically when it comes to reaching an audience.

So there is the scent of blood in the water, and out of the resulting frenzy a few lessons have appeared. Here are four of them.

There doesn’t have to be a difference between a “channel” and a “show.”

You probably have a clear understanding about what a television channel is. Comedy Central is a channel. Your local CBS affiliate is a channel. A channel is the thing you tune in to at a specific time to watch a particular show. A channel runs a lot of shows on it. Time Warner Cable offers 900 channels. This seems like too many. Bruce Springsteen wrote “57 channels and nothing on.” That sounds so quaint now.

But if you have a conversation about YouTube channels with this concept of a “channel” in your head you may experience some cognitive dissonance. There are “tens of millions” of channels on YouTube. One company, Machinima, operates 3,380 of them. That’s literally 100 times as many channels as are owned by NBC Universal, and it’s not enough. YouTube just launched 100 more channels with premium content. YouTube must be using the word “channel” differently. Except they’re not.

Both a YouTube channel and a television channel deliver a stream of content from a transmitting device to a receiving one. Viewers tune in to a television channel by selecting its number; they reach a YouTube channel via its URL. The main difference is that the cost of creating a television channel from scratch is incredibly high, while on YouTube it’s pretty close to zero. Unlike television, a YouTube channel can turn a profit with very little programming. The comedian Ray William Johnson, for example, has one of the most lucrative channels on YouTube. It plays one show. That show adds 12 minutes of new programming per week.

If a channel online costs next to nothing, and you can build one around a single show, then why do television shows need television channels at all? Every once in a while there’s a lot of fuss about getting cable channels à la carte. But who cares about that when you can have à la carte programming?

I like to think about this in the context of “The Daily Show.” On cable, you’re limited to 30 minutes of “The Daily Show” per day, and you have to tune in at 11 pm or set your DVR to watch it. There could easily just be a “Daily Show” channel, with all the extra programming that Comedy Central now reserves for the Web site, plus spinoffs for the various “Daily Show” correspondents. More content means more places to sell advertising, which means more profit. One challenge, of course, would be getting the audience to modify its behavior, but new technology seems to be inspiring this already.

Programming can now be delivered to your television set through a remote control.

Let’s define “remote control” as a handheld piece of electronics that tells your television set what to do while you’re sitting on the couch. Smartphones and tablets fit into this category, and before you argue that this definition is too broad, I submit that an iPhone is no less a remote control than it is a camera. It commands your television set far more profoundly than your traditional remote control. At least, if you have an Apple TV. Which you should.

The Apple TV comes with a technology called AirPlay, which allows you to throw videos wirelessly from your phone or tablet to your television set. Got a movie sitting in iTunes on your computer? You can watch it on TV via AirPlay. Find a video you want to watch embedded on a Web site you read? If AirPlay is available, a little button will pop up and you can stream the video to your TV. Need some good recommendations? Try one of the many “discovery” apps out there, like Shelby.tv or ShowYou or VHX. They skim your Twitter and Facebook feeds looking for videos your friends have posted. And you can throw those to your TV.

There are apps for ESPN and Discovery Channel and PBS and other traditional channels that allow you watch their shows, on demand, on your TV, via AirPlay. There are also a growing number of apps for channels that have never been included in a traditional cable provider’s lineup. The Wall Street Journal’s news channel, WSJ Live, is one of them. Time Warner Cable doesn’t carry it, but my iPad does.

I should note that WSJ Live is also available in the main Apple TV library, so you don’t actually need to use AirPlay to watch it. But the fact that you can illustrates my point. The remote control has become a very personal device, one that you carry around with you all day long, one that you use to store and index your favorite media. A viewer is just as likely to watch a channel she’s added to her home screen as anything available in the cable menu. The programming of her choice routes through her remote control.

Marketing and distribution are often the same thing.

Last month, IFC released the entire first episode of the second season of “Portlandia” online a week before its airdate. They used an embeddable video player, so that any online publication could feature the episode on its Web site. Individual sketches from the show were also made available in the same way. IFC didn’t just tease the show or talk it up, they let people actually see it for themselves. The result was an 81 percent increase in viewership among 18-49 year olds when the show returned to the network.

There are few examples of this sort of thing happening before the Internet. A movie poster hanging in a theater where that movie is playing, perhaps, or a DVD insert in a magazine ad. But this is something the Internet does really well. A single sentence can promote a film and deliver it to your computer at the same time. Allow me to demonstrate: “This video is amazing.

That, of course, is the lifeblood of online publishing. Here’s something that resonated with me, I’m recommending it to you, my audience. They call it “curating” now. Somehow that word got separated from “blogging” recently, and I’m not entirely sure how or why. I think Tumblr and Pinterest had something to do with it. But curating, which is a thing bloggers do, is a distinct talent. It’s highly respected in other manifestations, such as museum curators or fashion buyers or television programmers. It was curators who spread that “Portlandia” preview around. And when you factor in the marketing power they brought to that show, and you consider how much a network pays to advertise a program in general, there’s only one conclusion to draw. Online curators are the most undervalued talent in the television industry.

A few of those new YouTube channels seem to recognize the power of the curatorial voice. Vice, Pitchfork, SB Nation and the Bleacher Report all received funding to create new YouTube programming. Presumably their editors will create shows that they’d want to watch themselves, and with that level of personal investment, they’d vouch for those shows to their readers.

Television is no longer that different from publishing.

Just last week, the Gawker Media site Kotaku announced a programming schedule similar to that of a television network. This strategy was conceived well over a year ago, and is designed to sell audience size to advertisers, the way television does, rather than pageviews, which have been dropping in value for years.

This is only the latest example of conceptual overlap. Video embedding took off after the launch of YouTube, turning online publications into versions of The Daily Prophet, that newspaper from Harry Potter with the magical moving pictures on the front page. Some Internet video hosting and streaming services are built on content management systems designed for online publishing. When you upload a video to Blip, the last thing you click to make it go live is “publish.” Awl Music, the music video channel launched by The Awl in January, is run entirely on Tumblr. You can watch it on a television set connected to Google TV.

Both traditional and online publishers are producing original video series with increasing frequency. Reuters, Slate and The Wall Street Journal all have news and documentary programming on the new YouTube channel lineup. The New York Times and New York Magazine have been doing their own video programming for years. It’s only a matter of time before some of these compete with the cable news channels.

Eric Spiegelman produces the Web series “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which is about to launch its fifth season. He helped bring the hit Japanese television show “Retro Game Master” to Kotaku.com, and he helped launch AwlMusic.tv in partnership with TheAwl.com.


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