eXtensions - Tuesday 16 May 2017

Cassandra: The Shrinking World of News (2) - Television

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


The changes that technology has brought in the last few years have devastated the newspaper industry, in part because some publications failed to react in time or adequately to new content delivery methods. The same is happening to television. It moved from analog to digital systems, but is not coping well with on-demand delivery that the internet allows and customers now demand.

Show me the Money

Television delivery systems, either single stations or cable and satellite services are set up for different reasons: commercial, political, as a public service or for propaganda. Depending on the reasons for their existence, sources of income will differ. The main sources are:

  • Taxation - direct and indirect

  • Advertising revenue

  • Subscription

  • Donation

  • Sale of in-house content

Some organisations may operate with a combination of two or more of these.

making the world go round Major outgoings will also differ depending on the channel or service and the source of content. Some programming may be produced in-house, while some is bought in. Depending on the type or source of content, some of the channels can be extremely high cost.

Channels or service providers that have support (directly or indirectly) of government have the best chance of continuing survival particularly (as in the case of the BBC) they are able to produce high quality content that others purchase.

Service providers that have only subscribers and no advertising, are in the weakest position. To increase profit (or reduce losses) there are three options: renegotiate fees paid to content providers; increase subscriptions; introduce advertising (where allowed).

As their charters may not allow advertising, this is a change that is unlikely in most cases. Also unlikely currently is a renegotiation and lowering of fees paid to content providers, which may produce contract difficulties. In a case where negotiations fail, a loss of the content can mean reduced subscriber numbers, as would an increase in the fees that the remaining subscribers are asked to pay.

The Enemy is Time

Traditional television delivery has always provided scheduled services, except in the case of a major event (e.g. 9/11). This ties viewers to the service, especially when a special event or program is broadcast. Sporting events, such as football, fall into this category and there is competition among television companies for rights to broadcast such an event, with consequent high fees if the event (World Cup Final) is considered important. [While writing this, it was reported that a number of people had been arrested in Thailand for streaming English Premier League football broadcasts illegally (Nation).]

Some movies, such as the first TV showing of a movie, or a popular series may also attract a large following. Writers are careful to end one program with an event that will spur viewers to watch the next episode. This is not a new phenomenon and had been used by makers of series shown in the cinema, such as Flash Gordon (1936) and King of the Rocket Men (1949).

The excellent Forsyte Saga (1967) caused churches in the UK to reschedule Sunday evening services to cope with falling numbers of worshippers. This cultural shift from the past, in itself presages what is now happening, as society is shifting away from traditional television towards the internet and content on demand.

writing on the wall

Move along please

Traditional content providers do not see the writing on the wall until it is almost too late, then try to fight a rearguard action to preserve the status quo. As downloading came to music and then to movies, both the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) fought hard against any change, although they may have opened the doors by their own use of digital delivery (CDs and DVDs).

Once the internet expanded, several illegal download services appeared and litigation (successful and otherwise) took place. Eventually the organisations (and others) were persuaded to embrace legal download services. These still have some faults, but the users have their music and the companies (and some artists) have their royalties. Content on demand has also been added to music; and movie rentals are also available.

As these services appeared, so it was not long before television delivery followed a similar path. Several services have appeared that allow users to download non-copyright content as well as limited news services. Some major documentary and sports content providers have begun to allow subscription services.

There has also been the arrival of services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime that are in direct competition with traditional television services. Although these are available on the internet (computer, tablet or even smartphone), the set-top box such as the AppleTV (my preferred source) consolidates services available to the user, depending on availability in each country. The larger services, such as Netflix and others are now also producing their own unique content which itself draws in more users. Cable and satellite services cannot compete with this.

Such services provide content that the viewer wants, but with a convenience that traditional television has never been able to provide: on-demand viewing. Along with falling viewer numbers for events that would normally be expected to draw in large numbers of viewers (Premier League, Formula One, NFL and others) - and with the reduced numbers of subscribers being reported worldwide - there are likely to be difficulties for some companies (and their staff) who had thought they were untouchable. Television, like print has failed to respond to the changes that the internet and its new modes of delivery now allow.

There are no conclusions

Limited view There are no easy solutions for service providers or the content owners. Putting up the prices is a favourite ploy, but it just will not work these days. It is more likely to cause resentment and (especially where there are viable alternatives) a reduction in subscriber numbers: decreasing rather than increasing income. Holders of movie rights, also need to take on board the fact of reduced viewer numbers. Maintaining high prices for their content is unsustainable too.

The same applies (perhaps more-so) for owners of sports content, because those events have a brief shelf life, although may draw in some repeat viewers. These rights owners need to examine the options for online content delivery, for example direct to the consumer, by way of subscription.

Popular media are in the midst of change and must respond positively, rather than thrashing about trying to hold on to what was, rather than looking towards what is coming. Like cinema, which has begun to reinvent itself to an extent, particularly with the involvement of content providers like Amazon and Netflix, television in the traditional sense - much like print - is a failing medium. It needs to invest in new technologies or will pay the price.

See also: Cassandra: The Shrinking World of News (1) - Print

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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