On Monday, Terry and I finally stuck another toe into the twenty-first century by getting our first DVR. No, as much as I might want to, we haven’t gone the full TiVo route just yet — we’ve only got the service provided by our cable company, which I know isn’t in the same ZIP code of cool as TiVo, but has the advantage of not requiring a $200-up-front one-year subscription so we could get the box for free. We wanted to try out the whole DVR thing and make sure we’d use it before committing that money, and after four days, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet we’ll be making that upgrade fairly soon.
We got our digital cable back at the same time we got the DVR. I’ve missed digital cable terribly — some (like Terry) might say far too much, actually. For the last year-and-a-half, we’ve had either basic basic basic 20-channel cable, or, just recently, the next level up: fifty channels, but none of the groovy on-screen programming information which we’d grown so accustomed to. No way to know what channel or what show we’re watching! Or what’s coming up next! Or several hours or days from now! The tragedy of it all!
Anyway, new DVR and the return of digital cable meant I spent quite awhile in front of the TV on Monday night; basically, I was looking for something to record, just, y’know, ’cause. As I cruised through the lineup of what was on right that moment (a little before 10pm), I saw that Bravo was showing an episode of The West Wing. “Cool,” thought I, “maybe it’s one from the first or second season, back when it was still The Best Show Ever On Television Ever.” So I flipped on over.
And there was Jimmy Smits. Which meant that this episode had to be pretty new… it only took a few seconds of watching for me to realize that the episode was about the presidential campaign, and only a few seconds long to realize that it was the election episode. And that meant that it had only been about three weeks since NBC originally broadcast it. On April 9, as it turned out. I pulled up the info screen and scrolled through the next couple of hours on Bravo — turns out they were showing the next three episodes after that one during the next three hours.
By damn, I’d found myself something to record.
I’ve now watched four recent episodes of the show (I previously hadn’t watched a single one of the post-Sorkin shows), and have already scheduled recording of the series finale on Sunday night.  And I can guaran-damn-tee that I wouldn’t have seen a single one of the episodes without the shiny new DVR.
When I was younger (and by younger, I mean, like, 30), if I missed an episode of a show I watched, then I was likely just out of luck until it showed up in syndication. Oh, sure, if I was lucky, I might be able to catch it in summer reruns, but by then I’d probably have already seen the shows after that one — not such a big deal with sitcoms, where the episode-to-episode continuity usually isn’t all that important, but potentially huge with dramas. Yeah yeah, we’ve had VCRs around for 20 years, and if the situation were such that I knew in advance that I’d be missing one of my shows, I could program the VCR and hope it worked right… but doing so wasn’t always a sure bet that I’d get to watch the episode later. (Especially if one of my roommates used the same tape to record their favorite shows. Man, do I not miss VCRs.)
Now, though… between entire series released on DVD, downloadable episodes of recent broadcasts and deals like the one NBC obviously has with Bravo… I think it’s likely bordering on the painfully obvious to say that the face of the industry will be dramatically altered even as soon as ten years from now. Maybe less. The entire model for how we watch television is changing — has changed quite a bit already, and there’s much more to come. Even putting aside the technological advancements that will make the appliances we use to watch TV radically different (witness: download Lost to your video iPod), how we get what we watch is going to change. And as the distribution models mutate, the how will cause a profound effect on the what.
I see three movements taking hold within the next ten years or so:
- The current networks will continue on as they have, producing shows which first get broadcast in primetime, but those shows will become increasingly easier to get through alternate means, possibly to the point where the primetime broadcast isn’t even considered the primary one.
- We’ll start to see more “TV series” debut on the Internet from the big movie studios and production houses, shows of sufficient budget and quality (and potentially sufficient starpower) to garner large audiences and eventually make their way to DVD release, cutting out the need for the networks as “middlemen.”
- Along the same lines, an explosion of lower-budget (or no-budget) series produced by skilled amateurs and not-quite-professionals (and, of course, not-so-skilled amateurs), also hoping for big audiences and eventual DVD release. I think this one’s where the really good stuff will come from. This one has already started to some degree — keep an eye on YouTube.com for some idea where it might be going.
Furthermore, as Internet distribution gets easier and chepaer and more pervasive, it’s going to provide an alternate outlet for shows that struggle on the networks. Take, for example, a show like Veronica Mars. VM has solid critical caché, a deeply devoted fanbase, and lousy ratings. If Warner Brothers decided to contiune producing the show but to skip the broadcast and just put the show up online at regular intervals, don’t you think there’s a good chance they’d still get just as many viewers — and possibly more, even if each viewer were spending $.99 or $1.99 per episode? Someone’s going to try this experiment sometime within the next few years, and I’m going to very curious to see the results.
(None of this, of course, touches on the fundamental purpose of TV and the one consideration that will ultimately decide which models succeed and which don’t: advertising. Whichever models find the best way to make tremendous sums of cash from advertisers without pissing off their audience too much will be the big winners.)
All of these changes-to-come beg the question: at what point does it start becoming a misnomer to call this medium “television?” Is some other name going to come along and replace that one, or will we stick with “television” because that’s what we’ve always called it? Maybe someone will come up with some other name for it that can still be acronymed down to “TV” — or maybe “TV” will just be our shorthand for short-form episodic video content. Perhaps at some point in the future we’ll barely remember what “TV” used to stand for, or more likely, just won’t care; does anyone ever really give much thought anymore to what “ATM” stands for? Or, perhaps more a bit on point, “laser?”
Ultimately, as interested as I am to see where things go from here, thehow matters less to me than the what; as long as I’m able to get feed my addiction, I don’t much care what form it comes in, whether it be downloading and watching shows on my cellphone or watching during primetime on my 84-inch plasma HDTV.
(OK, I take it back, I do care… give me the big-screen HDTV, please.)
(For a far funnier take on this topic than I could manage, you should go read Joss Whedon’s predictions for the future of television.)
 My verdict on the Sorkin-less WW? Good — probably still better than most of what’s on TV — but nowhere near as good as it used to be. The biggest difference, unsurprisingly, is in the dialgoue. One scene with C.J. ripping Josh a new one would have been painful and awesome to behold coming from Sorkin’s pen; nowadays, not so much. Makes me look that much more forward to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.