Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Fast Approaching End To Time Slots

According to a Harris poll released last Thanksgiving, 52% of American adults subscribe to cable and another 25% subscribe to satellite television including those who have both.  I don’t subscribe to either, having pulled the plug nearly a year ago.

Still, I would have thought those percentages would be much higher.  By comparison 52% have smartphones and 36% have tablets.  And, incredibly, 25% subscribe to Netflix, 13% to Amazon Prime and 4% to Hulu to stream content.

Netflix now has more than 32 million streaming subscribers in the U.S. and as of a year ago Netflix alone was responsible for 33% of downstream internet traffic.

As a percentage of American adults overall, streaming services are used by nearly half.  The future of television is reflected by those age 18-36, where the 68% who are streaming subscribers now outnumber the 60% subscribing via cable or satellite.

An excellent article published December 4th in “The New Republic” magazine explains why this transition is so significant.  It was penned by Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor and author of the new book entitled The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Professor Wu’s book is a history of repeated media invention, domination and then succession in America, giving a broader, cyclical view of the changes we’re witnessing today.

His report about Netflix in “The New Republic” which chronicles the company’s incredible transformation of culture is summarized by his conclusion that:

“Instead of feeding a collective identity with broadly appealing content, the streamers imagine a culture united by shared tastes rather than arbitrary time slots.”

I’ve never watched Duck Dynasty, but a few days after I read Wu’s comment above, a controversy erupted when the show was suspended for a brief time after one of the performers was disrespectful to LGBT Americans in an interview published this month in “GQ” magazine.

Boycotts and petitions ensued but if Wu is correct, as I believe he is, as Americans are increasingly aligned by shared tastes rather than time slots, we’ll be less and less disturbed and more and more ignorant about what is being exhibited in silos where we don’t share a taste.

Who am I to dispute conservative columnist George Will, who in a humorous column this week bends an argument to fit his unrelenting mantra for smaller government?  But he makes an excellent point that:

“The problem of ignorance is unlikely to be ameliorated by increasing voter knowledge because demand for information, not the supply of it, is the constraint on political knowledge’”

In my opinion, the cultural shift away from a shared culture to shared interests as noted by Wu may have the unintended consequence of shrinking even further the demand for information and understanding about other viewpoints.

But if history is any guide, a new information technology may come along to bring us full circle again.  But maybe just not soon enough.

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