So now Facebook is getting into the original content game, because of course it is. The other day, the social media giant announced that it was changing its algorithm for picking what videos it shows users in their News Feed to put emphasis on longer-form clips, to get them accustomed to spending more time watching videos and, of course, seeing ads.
All this is in preparation for Marc Zuckerberg’s baby to bring a variety of shows, including scripted and unscripted formats and sports programming, from both media companies and individual digital stars. Right. Because there isn’t enough watchable content out there already, from so many sources that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Clearly, we need more of it, from more places, so that it is literally everywhere we look.
Next, there will be new shows on display at bus stops, on subway trains, at stop lights.
Hyperbole? Maybe a little, but the point is a valid one. The thing is, it used to be that the only way you couldn’t catch every good show that was on television was because maybe a couple of them were on at the same time and you had to decide which one to record on your VCR. Oh, for those halcyon days of yore. Now, we are under a constant barrage of new programming, so much of it worthy of our attention, but so little of it that we are actually able to consume.
The list of shows now available to us goes on and on and on. There’s no end to it, and more shows coming all the time, which is good in the sense that there’s so much quality stuff to watch, but bad in that there’s simply too much quality stuff to watch. Yes, I know this is a good problem to have, and seems trifling in the wake of what’s happening in the world around us, but this isn’t just a silly lamentation of having it so good that we’re complaining. It’s not me moaning about how my wallet has too many twenties in it, and that my diamond shoes are too tight. There is a serious downside to all this goodness we’re experiencing.
See, we’re living in the midst of a TV Bubble. It’s like anything else we’ve seen in the past, in that there is more and more of it coming, and at some point, it becomes unsustainable. It happened around the turn of the century with the internet, it happened in 2008 with the housing market, and it’s going to happen at some point in the not too distant future with the television industry. Just as the movie studios continue to march like lemmings toward the cliffs of their doom by putting more and more of their eggs in the increasingly top heavy tent pole basket, so are networks and streaming services and, soon, social media giants, spending billions of dollars to flood the airwaves with more programming than any single human could possibly consume.
I have pointed out something here before when it comes to the streaming services versus the television networks and the fundamental difference between them. A broadcast network has roughly two dozen hours of original prime-time programming to fill in a given week. A cable network somewhat less, with the rest of it filled in with movies and syndicated shows. Pay cable nets like HBO, Showtime and Starz, have 168 hours per week to fill, but most of that, too, comes from movies and only a small fraction is original programming.
But Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have literally an infinite number of hours to fill, which means they spend untold numbers of dollars to fill that space (at least, Netflix and Amazon do, with Hulu spending considerably less, since it has smaller financial reserves, but that’s sort of beside the point). Because of that, they keep producing more and more programming, and the shows keep stacking up higher and higher in our queues, with no hope of getting the chance to watch them all, which means that, at some point, worthy shows just are not going to be watched at all.
Which leads to the fallout, that being consolidation. Right now, the studios are making it rain. Deals are being handed out pell-mell and willy-nilly, with pilots happening all over the place and an inordinate number of them being picked up to series. But what happens when that ends? When not enough viewers means networks and streaming services cut off the faucet, and perhaps even fold in on themselves? Because that’s a definite possibility, that, all of a sudden, the money pouring into the pockets of these creators stops flowing.
Right now, if you go into a meeting, you’ll learn that the power has transferred from movies to TV, because there is simply more money there and more opportunity. But the thing is, there’s a cycle at play here. Movies spent themselves into a corner, pushing talent — both behind the camera and in front of it — to the small screen. That has led to an epic run of quality never before seen on the tube, but it also means that all that money previously spent in one place is now being spent in another.
Think about this, though: Movies are two hours long, give or take, while the shortest TV series is six or eight episodes. That’s a minimum of three hours, if you’re looking at a half-hour sitcom, double that for an hour-long, which means more time is needed, which means less opportunity for viewing, which means more likelihood that people won’t have the time to catch it, which means that, at some juncture, there’s a tipping point that ends up with networks and production companies going under from the financial strain, and that enormous amount of money now being spent on TV can run out. Purveyors of television would find themselves in the same corner where the movie people now reside.
Which means that said money could cycle back to the movies, or it could vanish altogether, leading to chaos, a tremor running through the entire industry that would leave it reeling.
It’s not as pie in the sky as you might think. This bubble is going to burst. It’s not a question of if, it’s a matter of when, and how we’re going to adapt to the new reality when it does.