The way we consume entertainment has changed a great deal in the last 80-90 years. There has been a slow, gradual arc away from a top-down system of creative control to a more decentralized, consumer-based model, and I feel we are on the brink of another big leap forward.
First, a little history. When Hollywood first started, all movies were made through the “Star System.” In this set-up, a handful of major studios would literally own an actor's contract. This meant the studio would dream up a relatively simple premise, an adaptation, whatever, then order their staff writers to write it, assign one of the three directors they owned to direct it, and grab whatever stars they had on contract to appear in it. The material did not drive the creative choices so much as what the studios had available.
Now some incredible movies were made under this system, but it was inherently limiting. If you wrote a beautiful screenplay tailor-made for Humphrey Bogart’s rugged features, but you worked for the wrong studio, you were out of luck. This is why you see actors like William Powell and Myrna Loy star in fourteen films together, more than any other acting duo. The reason is the same studio owned them both, and the studio found that putting them in a movie together brought in the ticket sales. Eventually the Star System disintegrated as smaller studios sprang up and the actors’ guild rebelled.
The next important development came in the 80s with the introduction of the VCR. Now, instead of a movie consumer being subject to whatever the movie theater was playing, they could select what they wanted to see, and the time they wanted to see it. This was a big change and many in the movie industry fought against it. Why would anyone go to the theater anymore, they cried. Well, the world didn’t end, and people still enjoyed seeing things on the big screen with surround sound, so theaters persevered.
The next step was the big step forward in digital editing technology in the 2000s. Quality editing equipment suddenly became very affordable, and smaller independent productions sprang up like wildfire. Suddenly the studios had to compete with a wider range of writers and creative vision for people’s attention. Sure, they could still overwhelm the senses with “Transformers” or whatever big budget extravaganza they blasted out, but their dramas and smaller productions had to compete with the likes of “Juno,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and “The Queen.” With more competition, the bar was raised.
A similar arc occurred with television. Originally, the big broadcast stations controlled all output. They decided which shows to broadcast and had almost limitless control over what survived and what died out. Enter cable networks in the 90s. With so many choices controlled by smaller studios and production companies there was greater variety in choices, which benefited the consumer.
So what is the next step? With the rise of television and movies streaming through the Internet, and the ability to “TiVo” programs and watch them at your convenience, I am predicting the death of the Television Schedule. TV channels will cease to say, “Okay, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, be sure to catch ‘Two and a Half Men.’” Instead they will say, “The newest episode of ‘Two and a Half Men’ is available beginning next Tuesday.” And people will download it and watch it at their convenience. No longer will shunting a show to Friday night be a kiss of death, it will just let everyone know to set his or her TiVo.
There will not be a divide between “computer” and “television.” Already you see these systems being connected through online gaming and Google TV. Currently, you have a big screen you watch shows on, and a laptop where you do work, but they are both hooked up to the same storage space and Internet connection.
This will also effect how shows are funded and continued. With the ability to track streaming, television studios could discover EXACTLY how many people are watching their shows. No more guessing based on the Neilson Ratings. They will see trends, and with a little invasion of privacy, discover what sorts of people watch each show.
This will lead to even more creator-driven content. Say I really like this one writer, who has trouble getting produced. I, the consumer, chip in and say I will watch the first 8 episodes of a new series and pay $0.25 to watch each episode. Then I get 50,000 of my friends to do the same thing. A studio can look at this and say there is an interest here and half the per-episode cost is already paid for. They may decide to pay the rest, add a few commercials, and if it does well in those eight episodes, front the cost of the next eight episodes. Individual consumers become investors in their own entertainment.
The movie world can operate under a similar principle. They can also track streaming and interest in a film, and at the end of the film, people could check a box saying, “Would you pay $2 to see a sequel to this?” Then, they would get a discount on their movie ticket or streaming ability when it is made.
The key will be keeping the financial burden low, think cents for television and a few bucks for movies, but it generates traceable investment and interest. This will give studios a better idea of what sounds good to the public; it makes entertainment a grassroots effort.
But what about people who just turn on the TV for background noise? There can still be package-streaming deals for endless Home Network or whatever, but the end result is more consumer control over what they want to consume.