McAdams On: Truly Free TV

The Internet is becoming to television what Walmart was to small towns. Cozad Hardware once neatly displayed china tea cups and Hummel figurines as well as claw hammers and elbow joints. Jeannaud’s had shoes you didn’t see outside of a metropolis. The drug store really did have a soda fountain.

It all sounds very quaint, but there was an artistry to it; something personal. The people who started and ran those businesses were neighbors. Everyone knew them, but that unfortunately didn’t matter when Walmart moved in. It was fascinating, at first, to see so much stuff under one roof. Cheap stuff. Train carloads of cheap stuff. Folks loaded up on cheap stuff, which fed landfills, thus generating demand for more cheap stuff. Viola! America’s economic infrastructure.

Walmart represented a cultural shift within households from procurement to consumption. People became “consumers.” We bought stuff because we could, not because we really needed it. TV encouraged the dynamic. It was brought to us by Procter & Gamble. Procter & Gamble said our colors were dingy, our hair was gray, our teeth were yellow, our skin was wrinkled and our potato chips should come in a can. Who knew?

And who knew the cheap-consumption mindset would become collectively pathological? Who knew it would translate into all-out anarchy online, particularly for TV.

The innertubes increasingly leak TV programming as bandwidth and compression move towards each other. For a long time, watching any sort of full-length video online meant cooking dinner while it downloaded. Now, watching online is about as easy as turning on the TV, which still for the most part adheres to scheduling. For people who don’t care about image resolution--and most don’t--the ’Net’s where they can watch what they want when they want.

Googling “TV shows online” gets 218 million hits. The count likely includes a few pirates who probably aren’t getting scads of traffic, but those who feel they have a right to retransmit TV shows online are becoming more brazen. The purveyor of is making a legal point of it by challenging the copyright model by which TV content is merchandised.

Sticking up for TV networks online is a certain path into flames. There’s a prevailing attitude that because broadcast content goes out free over the air, it’s fair use. Never mind that shows are meticulously measured there and paid for according to that metric.

Oddly, when the editor of a cooking magazine recently took that same position (albeit rudely) on an article she lifted off the Web, the woman was fire-balled. Because the Web made writers of everyone, and we want our $10 contributor’s fee, dagnabbit. The going rate for freelancing used to be $1 a word, but the Internet opened up a whole range of publishing opportunities that smoked the prevailing business model. The one that supported illustrators, photographers, copy editors, content editors and writers. This is how the Internet contributed to the nation’s akseptuns of therd-grade level spellng.

The same erosion will overtake TV content. The first wave is what’s known as “reality” TV. The next wave is the transmission of Web content to the TV set, where folks will soon be able to watch Justin Beiber in large sunglasses do absolutely nothing of any consequence whatsoever. Not that it’s bad per se to be able to observe Mr. Beiber in his natural environment. It would be a shame, however, if doing so starts defining the new high-water mark for content.

I think of the folks I saw last night at the Hollywood Post Alliance Awards receive recognition for mixing audio, for calibrating color and for compositing. Hearing and seeing the results of their work--an admixture of art and science--was a wonder. Surely the business model that supports that type of innovation and creativity is worth preserving. Otherwise, what we’ll have is truly free TV, where we all just watch each other and ourselves on Webcams.

Please pass P&G’s Pepto Bismol brand digestive treatment.