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The year is 2031. Flying cars have just hit the open market, the New York Mets are on the verge of winning their first World Series in forty-five years, and television as we know it has ceased to exist.
Let’s first imagine that a super smart group of MIT engineers solved all the technical troubles we’d encounter in switching from a broadcast to a unicast model.
The public’s consumption habits now overwhelmingly favor an on-demand format, and each household is equipped with a SmarTV capable of streaming content instantaneously from anywhere on the web.
Traditional channels have fallen in the face of more agile competition from platforms like Netflix and Hulu, or they’ve adapted to HBO Go-esque versions of their former selves.
Now imagine that these new age providers are actually able to compete for the rights to quality content and earn their revenue through an advertising opt-out offer similar to what we see with Spotify’s Premium Membership service.
At present, this model has proven problematic for services like Netflix as they attempt to financially justify expensive ventures of original content.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the financial and technical infrastructure needed to turn a profit is actually in place. Who holds the power here? Whose influence grows as TV’s traditional model crumbles?
Power to the people
In a word – the people. Socialization of media is already a common phenomenon, and we’ll certainly see this trend continue to change how we identify what’s “popular” as control over how TV is consumed shifts towards users and away from producers.
Imagine for a moment that CBS can’t prime a new sitcom for success by giving it a favorable time slot. What once survived because it was a lead-in for their big ratings program now must stand on its own.
The networks’ influence over what we watch was once wielded through their control of the flow of content, but now that control is solely in the hands of the viewer. We decide the what, where, when, and how of our televised entertainment.
Want to see an interesting parallel of my hypothesis playing out in the present day? Just take a look at the music industry. When was the last time MTV was responsible for introducing you to the coolest new band? Ten years ago?
Now socialized music platforms like Spotify's "Follow" feature and the new Twitter Music program allow people to discover new acts through digital word-of-mouth. Whether the influence comes from a well-established music blog like Pitchfork or a friend from college who always knows the best bands before they get big, the user decides who has earned the right to recommend content.
The arbiter of cool is you
It’s not an alien concept, really. People have always learned about future favorites from their friends, but that process becomes all the more poignant when replicated in the digital world. When trusted endorsements come at the exact moment of consumption in an on-demand environment, that’s when power truly shifts towards the individual.
The future of television will be similarly dynamic. Simultaneously critic and consumer, users will completely control the manner in which their viewing habits are influenced. They will, in fact, be influencers themselves as well.
Once a prix fixed menu carefully crafted by the head chefs of major studios, TV will one day seem more like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The patrons will control the service. Not the other way around.
Predicting the future is, more often than not, a pointless endeavor that rarely ends in accuracy. Orwell’s vision of 1984 was as cold and cruel as the book was popular. And even though my imagined evolution of television may prove as equally incorrect as Orwell’s best seller, at least it’s optimistic.