How will people watch TV or movies in ten years? It's a question that can be played off or massively inflated, as people forecast a long life for cable and theaters or a complete shift to Netflix and YouTube. At a Tribeca Film Festival panel with our own Josh Topolsky, telecom executives met with entrepreneurs who have successfully made the jump to web — it included Boxee's Avner Ronen, AT&T's Richard Wellerstein, Comcast's Mike Imbesi, and Vuguru's Kristen Jones. Together, they plotted the future of television in a wide-ranging discussion about Aereo, streaming, and the death of DVDs.
The panelists acknowledged that there's a gap between what viewers want and what's likely to happen. You're probably never, for example, going to be able to regularly buy films online at the same time they launch in theaters, said Wellerstein, who works on AT&T's U-verse TV service. Nor should Americans hope to sign up for internet service and then get digital TV from another company. "What happens there, we like to say — and we talk about that a lot — is World War Three," said Wellerstein. "We have territories, and we don't overlap." These territories were carved up with the idea that companies shouldn't have to lay cable and then open it to competitors, but they've come under fire now that the lines between internet and television service have blurred.
Aereo, which Wellerstein praised cautiously, is a prime example of that gap. "As a consumer, I'm rooting for Aereo to succeed," he said, but as a television provider, he's not so sure. At the same time, he said companies can't simply ignore what their customers want. Though they've been outspoken about their hatred for Aereo, network TV providers may recognize this as well: CBS has threatened to cut off its broadcasts if Aereo keeps operating, but it's also starting to invest in streaming video itself.
"We just don't think that ownership will be around in the future."
In other areas, the internet is upending how television providers or movie studios operate. Despite their age, nobody thinks movie theaters are going away. Physical media, though, is another matter. American DVD sales rose very slightly in 2013, but only after seven years of decline, and nobody on the panel was optimistic about them. "The idea of owning spinning media may never be there any more," said Avner Ronen, though he also thinks it will be offset by the increasing ease of reaching international markets or licensing to games. Wellerstein was blunter: "We just don't think that ownership will be around in the future." There's still a long list of ways to sell or rent content, but Ronen said it's harder to count on a steady line of sales — customers no longer necessarily see something in the theater, watch it on demand, then buy a DVD or think about streaming. "They have screen where they can watch anything they want," he said.
On the TV side, Ronen thinks the biggest losers will be middlemen — bundled cable channels that once got by on aggregating TV or movies, for example. "I don't think anybody's dead," he said. "Some people may be less alive [...] If you have a channel and the brand of the shows are stronger than the brand of your channel, and anybody who is not either owning the content or producing the content, or [who doesn't] have a direct relationship to the consumer, you're going to have an issue [...] Anybody in the middle is going to get squeezed."
"Anybody in the middle is going to get squeezed."
If the web is making some business models much harder, though, it's also strengthening some TV traditions. Where you might once have watched a TV show when it aired so you could talk about it in the office, there's now a huge community on Twitter and Facebook waiting to discuss it. Netflix may be able to offer instant addiction viewing, but it's hard to know what to talk about when given a full season of spoilers. "It becomes an event," said Wellerstein. "You want to watch it on Sunday, because people will want to talk about it on Monday." Twitter itself has recognized this, letting advertisers plan their promotions around TV shows.
It's also very easy to be wrong about the future. Ronen described the predictions he heard five years ago, when people believed that scripted television was giving way to a desert of reality TV. While their reasoning was strong — reality shows were quick, cheap, and popular — they didn't foresee the boom of high-quality cable drama. "Now, it's the best days ever for scripted content," he said.