Life After Television

The little Roku box is a giant killer.

Last year, when I made a big upgrade to my home theater cabinet by installing a new large LCD TV, a Blu-Ray player, and a Roku box, I also installed a four-port gigabit Ethernet hub in the bottom of the cabinet. A decade ago, I had a hardwired LAN outlet installed behind the cabinet in an effort to future-proof my media room and home office. Which worked out well, as the DirecTV receiver that I installed there a few years later needs Ethernet to play YouTube videos, among other things. The Blu-Ray player needs Ethernet so that it can play the MP3 files on my computer through my big home theater speakers (among other things). The Roku box needs Ethernet to pump out everything else.

It occurred to me while I was wiring all this new gear up, that I was basically building a large deconstructed personal computer, designed to be interacted with via remote control while lying back in a comfy chair* as opposed to sitting upright in a swivel chair typing into a keyboard.

In 1990, George Gilder wrote a book titled Life After Television, in which he noted:

Data is rapidly approaching a level of 50 percent of the bits in a telephone network and already comprises 20 percent of the profits. Data income is growing six times as fast as voice income. As the telephone network becomes a computer network, it will have to change, root and branch. All the assumptions of telephony will have to give way to radically different assumptions. Telephony will die.

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Television faces a similar problem. It is a broadcast system that assumes all human beings are essentially alike and at any one time can be satisfied with a set of some 40 or 50 channels moving up to 500. In Europe and Asia, 500 channels may seem wretched excess. But compare this array to some 14,000 magazines and a yearly output of some 55,000 trade books published in the U.S. alone.

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TV defies the most obvious fact about its customers -- their prodigal and efflorescent diversity. People perform scores of thousands of different jobs; pursue multifarious hobbies; read hundreds of thousands of different publications. TV ignores the reality that people are not inherently couch potatoes; given a chance, they talk back and interact. People have little in common except their prurient interests and morbid fears and anxieties. Necessarily aiming its fare at this lowest-common-denominator target, television gets worse and worse every year.

Nearly a quarter century later, Gilder’s predictions of television’s impending doom are starting to sound rather more plausible -- including to those inside the industry. For the past decade, as more and more computer-savvy adults began to eschew the 6:00 PM news, the notion that television's demographics were beginning to get more and more gray was tacitly reflected in the medium's advertising. (Super Beta Prostate, indeed.) As Brian Anderson of City Journal told me in 2005:

Writing in the New Yorker recently, the media critic Ken Auletta pointed out something I hadn’t noticed: the commercials on the Big Three network newscasts are frequently hawking drugs like Viagra and Mylanta, and the broadcasts themselves often focus on health issues. There’s a reason for that emphasis on infirmity: the average age of a network news watcher is now 60; only about 8 percent of viewership is between 18 and 34. Ten years ago, 60 percent of adult Americans regularly tuned in to one of the network newscasts. Now it’s only about one in three.

But increasingly, those in the industry are becoming more verbal regarding their legacy media status, as we'll explore right after the page break. (Which helps pay for our own sponsors.)