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 V.19 No.2 | January 14 - 20, 2010 

Idiot Box

Pay to Play?

The ghost of TV future

Here we sit, poised between the Aughts (or whatever we’re calling them) and the teens (not to be confused with that last set of teens with World War I and all that junk). It is a time for both reflection and prognostication. What was so great/awful about the last 10 years? What will happen in the next 10 years? Take TV, for example. “The Sopranos” sure was nifty. Remember Darva Conger from “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” getting naked in Playboy? Crazy days. That covers the last 10 years. Now, let’s look into our cathode-ray crystal ball and speculate on changes for the coming decade.

As 2009 sputtered out, the FOX network and Time Warner Cable Inc. got into a heated battle—a major sneak preview of things to come. At issue was News Corporation’s (the parent company of FOX) demand for $1 from each Time Warner subscriber. If Time Warner didn’t fork over the dough, FOX was going to yank its feed in major cities. No “American Idol” for you, Chicago.

So is free TV a thing of the past? Yes and no.

Why was FOX demanding money to rebroadcast what is basically free TV? Simple: FOX wants to make more money. It isn’t getting enough from commercials, so—like its cable TV rivals—it wants viewers to fork over monthly fees as well. The eventual terms of the FOX / Time Warner deal were not revealed (though it’s assumed FOX got close to what it was asking for). Now other networks are poised to follow suit. CBS, the No. 1 broadcast network, may ask for 50 cents per cable subscriber. Add up what NBC, ABC and The CW would want, and you’re talking a lot of scratch. Estimates say broadcast networks could soak cable providers for up to $5 billion a year.

But the bigger picture is what this will lead to down the road. Already, broadcast television is having a hard time competing with cable TV, creatively and financially. NBC basically gave up the ghost this season, handing over roughly a third of its schedule to “The Jay Leno Show.” Ratings are terrible, but NBC execs keep crowing about how cheap the show is. The damage to viewership, however, is incalculable. Between 2000 (when NBC was in first place) and 2009 (when it was in last place), the network lost 32 percent of its audience. Those people aren’t coming back. Ever. They’re off watching “Mad Men.” Despite the brave face NBC is putting on it, “The Jay Leno Show” is the nail in broadcast TV’s coffin.

So is free TV a thing of the past? Yes and no. Here are my predictions: Within five years, “big ticket” broadcast specials like the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Academy Awards will go pay-per-view. There’s just no way to avoid it. Licensing fees (especially for sports) are climbing higher every season. Soon it won’t be worth broadcasting them for free, even with inflated “Super Bowl” advertising rates. Within 10 years, the top networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) will launch cable stations. All first-run shows will be aired on cable (and on soon-to-be-pay-per-view websites like, leaving network TV to show nothing but reruns. Like TV Land. Only worse.


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