I have seen the future of television. And it is not Jay Leno.
Leno was introduced this week by NBC as the host of a prime-time show along the lines of his current Tonight Show, but not really, to run five nights a week at 9. This is supposedly NBC’s revolutionary answer to waning interest in network television generally – give the middle-aged something they can’t stay up past 10:30 to watch now, and let the kids watch Conan and stay up all night. All they need is a comfortable pop celebrity to show up every night and they'll be happy as clams. Why anyone could stand to watch Leno for longer than five seconds is beyond me, but then, I’ve always been a Letterman fan. Why not Junior Bush – I hear he’ll be available soon.
The Leno stunt also has the distinct advantage of being about ten times cheaper to produce than the drama/cop shows that dominate that hour of programming. This is the TV equivalent of the shrinking of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other newspapers, as ad revenue and readers flee to the internet. Both network television and newspapers are facing the same reality as the car companies – they are enormous, inefficient, labor-intensive organizations that have managed to exist past the time that anyone cares anymore. The most successful shows on TV are now reality shows, where millions of nondiscriminating viewers lazily tune in to see stupid people doing stupid things. The Leno show is the next logical step – just set up a camera, put Leno in front of it and see what happens. Television may end up coming full circle, with the modern equivalent of David Garroway and a monkey chatting up whoever happens to stop by their empty studio.
The future of television, we are also told, is digital. In a short two months, moving pictures will not fly through the air anymore, at least not the version that can be picked up on most current TV sets without a satellite or cable connection. The industry has been squawking for months about the conversion, urging people to get the converter boxes they need to continue their "free" programming. But the fact is that millions of elderly, poor, uninformed and chronic procrastinators will turn on their only window to the outside world on February 17th and wonder what the hell is going on. TV will lose a significant part of its universal, democratic character on that day, becoming just another toy for the elite. Some people have had the same TV for twenty years or picked it up for $25 at the rummage sale down the street and now they have to do what now? This is going to be a much bigger mess than the Y2K flash-in-the-pan. The house-bound underclass is going to wake up someday soon and find that someone has destroyed their easy access to Jerry Springer. And they are going to be pissed.
So, although Jay Leno and DTV are unfortunate parts of television’s immediate future, they are not the future of television. The future of television is something like...Netflix.
Yeah, I said Netflix, but not the part that delivers DVDs through mail (Hah! The mail! Just wait until that bad boy goes digital. What do you mean you don’t own a computer?). It’s the instant internet delivery option that Netflix offers on a limited number of their selections that is so facinating. And not just playing the things on your computer – it’s putting the content through a box that explodes it onto your TV, in full-screen and living color.
I discovered this quite by accident last week while I was goofing around the menus on my son’s Xbox360. All of a sudden, there was a button that invited me to get Netflix content through the Xbox. Having just caved in to a free two-week offer from Netflix, I thought I’d check it out. First, you have to go on the computer to jam some selections in your "instant queue" and then, son of a gun, the damn things turn up on the Xbox. Pick one, hit play, and in no time at all, high-quality video content fills the wide-screen. You want to watch all 37 episodes of the first two seasons of 30 Rock? Yes you do, and so do I. How about The Office, American and British versions? King of Kong? Deja Vu, the excellent documentary of Neil Young’s Freedom of Speech tour in 2006 with those other three guys (including some footage from the Milwaukee show)?
Television’s union with broadband internet was only a matter of time, but Netflix-through-the-box (also works with some Blu-Ray players, Tivo and Netflix' own little box for $99) shows how it might work. I can see a time very soon when it will be announced that a pile of new episodes of various series will be available on a given day, and all you have to do is go grab it off the virtual shelf.
Live content – news, sports, QVC – will be a little trickier, but I’m sure somebody is working on it. There is also that small matter of how you pay for the production of shows and actually make money off the deal, but that doesn’t sound like my problem, now does it? Besides, how much can it cost to set up a camera and aim it at Jay Leno and his monkey?