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The Costs of Gaining Control over Household Media

If, as programming evolves with the technology, television advertising is squeezed out of the marketplace, it could spell the end of “free” over-the-air programming.
by Jay Dunlap | Source:
A new report from Forrester Research, Inc., shows how advancing technology is giving us ever more control over what we view in our homes.

This latest news involves households with digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVo. DVRs record programs from broadcast and cable channels so the viewer can watch them at any time. DVRs also allow viewers to fast-forward through commercials, a service viewers love but advertisers fear. According the Forrester report, DVR-ready households watch recorded programs 60 percent of the time and skip through 92 percent of the commercials.

Families watching recorded programs off the DVR clearly have greater control over the content. Many a time have my wife and I been frustrated while watching a program we find acceptable for our small children only to have it interrupted by inappropriate or offensive advertising. Skipping over those commercials is a real gain.

But too much of a good thing can be costly. If, as programming evolves with the technology, television advertising is squeezed out of the marketplace, it could spell the end of “free” over-the-air programming. That would likely mean ever higher prices for cable and satellite television services, since programmers would need to find other revenue sources to pay the bills.

What we are witnessing is the ever-emerging phenomenon of media convergence. We have grown accustomed to thinking of the media universe according to different technologies or distribution systems: radio, broadcast TV, cable, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, etc. But the more technology advances, the more the lines between different media are blurred. Cable companies already want to provide you Internet and phone service as well, advertising “one simple bill” for all they can send you through one coaxial line. Phone companies and wireless providers similarly look to offer an
increasing array of services.

And a recent ruling brings together DVRs and the Internet. Despite objections from various sources of TV programming — from cable companies to the National Football League — DVRs can now be linked to the Internet so people who save programs can send them to up to ten others. It’s a first step towards allowing friends to effectively design their own “cable networks.” It is also a step towards “video on demand,” the service that may ultimately replace scheduled programming as we know it and put video stores like Blockbuster out of business. Imagine sitting down to watch TV and not having to channel surf but going to a menu from which you can pick any movie, sitcom, sporting event, cooking show, etc., that you want to watch at that time. It’s all in your hands, and so long as the systems give you control over what kinds of programs can and cannot enter your home, it could be the ultimate solution to problem programming.

But at a price. It cannot help but be more expensive than even today’s cable and satellite programming, not to mention “free” over-the-air broadcasting. Those of us who once scoffed at paying for television know that demand sometimes follows supply. Consumers can be changed — I mean, we spend billions now on bottled water, right? TV on demand may offer the viewer more choices, but it could also spell the end of free TV.

Media commentator Jay Dunlap writes from South Bend, Indiana. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register, This Rock and other Catholic periodicals.

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