As of 1999, a full 99 percent of American households contained at least one television [source: Federal Communications Commission]. Just over a decade later, in December of 2010, 46.5 percent of the 128.5 million households on a cable line were receiving basic services: That's almost 60 million homes. Nearly 75 percent of those homes, more than 44 million households, subscribed to digital video service, and 93 percent of all American homes were capable of getting high-speed Internet [source: Webster].
All those numbers mean that we're getting closer every day to a fully global network. Television, the Internet and other media gadgets are coming together quickly to create always-on, 360-degree availability for the programs and other content we enjoy. In the near future, simultaneous release of programming will make for a financially viable system, but in the meantime, we must contend with business practices that are already in place, as well as the wait for technology to catch up with these exciting ideas.
When cable services were first offered, it made financial sense to concentrate on large, urban centers. The wires weren't capable of carrying as much data, especially before the advent of fiber optics and more recent data-streaming infrastructure, so there weren't as many channels as we have now. That meant that different stations, networks and premium channels were available to different markets, which grew as the business paid for itself.
Now, we've gone from three or four channels -- with their mix of national and local content -- to thousands of options. Niche programming concepts, like Syfy or the Cartoon Network, are able to survive based on numbers that simply wouldn't have been possible in the recent past. Shows that wouldn't even have been approved to pilot can last for years, depending on whether they service a channel's preferred demographic.
All this choice and availability means that soon, we'll all have access to the same stations and programs not only at the time they air, but also at any convenient time after that. For the time being, however, there are still some programs and stations you probably can't view with your cable box, no matter how many channels you get. Let's look at what causes these complications, and how they vary in different locations.
Licensing agreements between countries, merchandising revenue and other complications -- many of them having to do with non-television streaming of content -- can keep you from immediately accessing your content when you want it. Every business that touches your programming, all the way down the line, needs its piece of the pie, and that can mean delaying availability.
For example, a series usually releases its latest season on DVD a month or so before the next season premieres. This provides a way to generate excitement, and advertising, through two different streams: Marketing the DVD means reminding people of the show's oncoming premiere and new episodes, while advertising for the new season gives people a reason to relive the last season, or catch up if they've fallen behind. Making that content available online immediately, even for a price, would cut into those physical profits.
But it works both ways, especially for shows that cross the Atlantic. Some British networks are fast-tracking solutions to get their content to America, for example, because their hit shows are being downloaded illegally by American fans before they're available for American stations to air. That means that not only is money lost for the American partner network and its advertisers, but the program is also less lucrative for the original producers and studio.
And vice versa. There are American shows, such as "House," with specific restrictions on when and for how long they're available online. This happens due to responsibilities the show, and the studio that makes it, bear to their financing partners, the show's home network, and agreements that may have been signed years ago but aren't renegotiated. Every show might have a different, specific distribution scheme designed to maximize profits: It could be that the show has an older audience that would prefer DVDs over watching online, or that the show is only a hit in certain regional markets.
Let's take a look at how things vary in these regional markets.
There is also the fact that certain channels and programs simply don't succeed in a given market -- or aren't allowed to do so. For example, if you live in China, you won't be watching "Baywatch" or "The Real Housewives" anytime soon. Similarly, controversial channels may not get enough market share to justify a cable company paying for the license; in extreme cases, consumer groups in a particular region might lobby against having the channel available at all.
Conversely, there are often governmental incentives to produce and broadcast local or regional programming: In Canada, at least 60 percent of all programming (50 percent of the primetime hours) on each station must be Canada-produced "Canadian content." This is a culture-preserving imperative that means there are plenty of programs (of varying quality) that never make it south of the border, although most stations acknowledge that striking that balance is difficult: It also limits the amount of American imports the system can bear, which can make for some pretty competitive deal-making.
But consider the northern American emphasis on hockey, compared to the southern preference for football. Sports is an incredibly lucrative form of entertainment because it creates urgency, passion and regional pride: Without those ingredients, there's no reason to air the content. A National Hockey League (NHL) station would not be profitable for any but the largest cable providers, who could balance the profits gained and lost by hitting every hockey-loving household. The recent American embrace of World Cup soccer, on the other hand, proved to be a money maker for those cable providers who'd been paying attention to trends.
And finally, there are occasions when niche channels with parallel focus -- gay and lesbian interests, for example, or outdoor/hunting channels -- would each dilute the other, taking an already small sample of the audience and halving it further. Again, this represents a loss for the station, the producers of its programming and, more than likely, your cable provider, who paid for both but isn't getting the ad dollars it was expecting for either. In this case, you're probably getting the type of station you want, but not necessarily the specific programs you've been hearing about.
The Future of Distribution
As the classic ratings and ad-based broadcast model fades out -- thanks to time-shifting, downloads and online streaming -- we'll see a move toward that global, always-on programming culture. The search is on to find a way to distribute content in the best way possible to ensure that everybody involved profits.
It's easy to sit in front of your computer, Roku or AppleTV and roll your eyes in annoyance that you have to wait an extra month, or even day, for the new episode of your favorite foreign or premium-cable show. But the truth is, at the end of that very long line of businesspeople with their hands out, there's an artist -- a writer, an actor or a musical performer -- who depends on that money for survival and the ability to create more art.
The hope is that this larger, global, networked entertainment culture will, paradoxically, result in a smaller-scale business model. That would mean better availability for you, the consumer, and a larger share of the profits for the actual makers of your media and entertainment.
It doesn't take an entire digital tier of music channels, each with their thousands of employees, or an entire label, with their artist and repertoire execs, to bring you a track -- not when you can just as easily buy it from iTunes yourself, after hearing it on a TV show or learning about the band on Facebook. And isn't that the point of all this technology? To make things simpler?
In the meantime, rest assured that while for the time being your choices are marginally limited by regional and financial concerns, no matter your cable company, you won't have to wait too much longer to see exactly the programming you'd like to see. And not long after that, you'll be able to stream or download your favorite shows the very moment you want to see them. Just give those businesspeople time to figure out the details: After all, they're just trying to make sure everybody makes it out with profits intact.
For more great TV articles, check out the links on the next page.
- 10 TV Moments That Changed the World
- 10 Completely Unrealistic TV Relationships
- 10 TV Shows That Have Gained a Global Audience
- Quiz: What do we owe to TV?
- Before There Was TV: Sports History Quiz
- Before There Were DVDs: The Film Industry
- What was the first televised sporting event?
- How did the advent of television impact politics?
- How has the evolution of TV changed America?
- How do TV commercials influence American culture?
- Has TV changed people's relationship expectations?
- D'Alessandro, K.C. "Pilot Programs." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. (April 27, 2011)http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/P/htmlP/pilotprogram/pilotprogram.htm
- Federal Communications Commission. "V-Chip Fact Sheet." 1999. (April 27, 2011)http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Mass_Media/Factsheets/factvchip.html
- Media Buyer/Planner. 2011. (April 27, 2011)http://www.mediabuyerplanner.com
- Motion Picture Association of America. "State-by-State Film & Television Production." (April 27, 2011)http://www.mpaa.org/policy/state-by-state
- National Cable & Telecommunications Association. "Latest Developments in Cable." 2011. (April 27, 2011)http://www.ncta.com
- Pfanner, Eric. "As U.S. Is Reviled Abroad, American TV Charms." The New York Times. Oct. 16, 2006. (April 27, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/business/media/16tv.html
- Thinkbox. "Regional Advertising." (April 27, 2011)http://www.thinkbox.tv/server/show/nav.916
- Webster, Tom. "The Infinite Dial 2011 -- Navigating Digital Platforms." Edison Research. April 5, 2011. (April 27, 2011)http://www.edisonresearch.com/home/archives/2011/04/the_infinite_dial_2011.php