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Your television viewing choices

Rob Long Jan 13, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: It’s been just over 50 years since Newton Minnow — he was the head of the FCC at the time — called commercial television a vast wasteland. Depending on what you watch, he wasn’t all that wrong. We’ve been looking at the future of TV this week. And yes, there is a future. More channels, more to watch, more gadgets to watch on, more everything.

And that, says commentator Rob Long, could prove scary for those in the business of TV.

Rob Long: We tend to think of televisions as those big things that hang on the wall, with plugs and cords that we don’t really understand. In the last decade, televisions like that have gotten huge and flat and complicated.

But they’ve also gotten tiny and simple. The smartphone you’re probably carrying in your pocket is a television. So is an iPad. And we all know that if you’re under 30, say, you probably don’t even own one of those big flat things. Your television is your laptop.

All of which means that the cozy, lucrative television business — in which a few dozen folks with important eyewear and expensive shoes told you what you were going to be watching, and when, and on which device — well, those days, are gone. The future of television belongs to upstarts and disrupters — like Netflix the online movie streaming service now launching its own slate of scripted programming; or YouTube, which is about to launch a series of professionally produced channels of television — backed by the limitless resources of Google. Or even Twitter.

I mean, it is just a matter of time before a big brand, say, like Doritos, decides to launch its own programming. Or, better yet, maybe it will just take a portion of its giant promotional budget and buy a show that’s already on — “Tosh.0,” say, which is Comedy Central’s biggest hit; or resurrect a cult favorite, as Netflix is considering doing with the late, great “Arrested Development.”

In other words, it’s impossible not be excited about the future of television. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people with expensive shoes and important eyewear. The current environment is the worst possible outcome for those people. See, there’s only one way to compete against the television upstarts: you have to put on good shows. All of them have to be good. And you have to make money on them, too, because you’re selling that show specifically. That agonizing cry you hear from the folks in the television business comes as we all will try to learn how to make money in the most painful, least attractive way: we have to earn it.

Ryssdal: Rob Long is a television writer and producer.

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