What’s On Tonight

That question was probably never uttered by any human until the mid-twentieth century and the arrival of the television set into the American home.  But once watching television became our favorite pastime, I’d bet no question has been asked more often by more people.

In the days before SVOD and AVOD services, when your choices of what to watch were limited to whatever program a particular network happened to air at a given time, most people consulted the television listings in the newspaper or TV Guide (raise your hand if you remember TV Guide).

Of course, in today’s world of endless on-demand options across a myriad of services the idea or checking TV Guide or your “local listings” seems hopelessly antiquated.  I’d be surprised if anyone under 35 even knows what “local listings” means.

The media business, like other industries this time of year, has been flooded with predictions for 2023.  Speculation about the future of M&A, new programming, the studio business, executive moves, the latest innovations…the list goes on.

Amidst all this chatter, I worry that the industry is not devoting enough attention right now to what I see as the most pressing issue for consumers.  Discovery is just too damn hard.  Said more simply, there is no longer an easy way to answer the “what’s on tonight” question. 

The psychologist Barry Schwartz published the book The Paradox of Choice in 2004.  In it he argues that giving people too many options is actually a negative because it requires more effort to choose and often can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

I believe this is where the television viewer finds themselves today.  And unfortunately, Netflix, Disney+, Peacock, HBO Max and all the other platforms out there aren’t doing much to help make it easier.  This is because their business models are based on creating “walled gardens” – wholly contained user experiences that offer a little something for everyone, so viewers are only exposed to the choices the platforms have to offer and never leave.

But of course, that is not how viewers behave.  The average household subscribes to at least four or five paid services plus several other free ones.  Even Netflix, which can boast far and away the most time spent viewing compared to the other SVODs, does not have a monopoly on consumer attention.

The answer to this discovery problem, like so many issues facing the industry today, can be found in the past.  What we need is a TV Guide for the twenty-first century.  Rather than a magazine delivered to your home weekly, it would be a real-time agnostic search platform that helps viewers choose what to watch. Content options would be “deep linked” inside the search platform so viewers are never more than one-click away from their programming of choice.

This is not a new concept.  Television manufacturers, cable companies and in home voice activated devices like Amazon’s Alexa have been working this problem for years. Various forms of it already exist, but nothing comprehensive.  Yet the exponential proliferation of programming has only exacerbated the problem and heightened the urgency to fix it.

The best path forward is for the major media companies – Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Paramount, etc. – to agree to a common technology solution or platform that allows viewers to search all their streaming and linear services in one place.  There are several thorny issues to solve.  A viewer looking to watch something with Harrison Ford will be presented with options on virtually every platform.  How will search results be prioritized?  In this case Disney may not be happy with a system that directs viewers to Paramount’s “1923” as opposed to Star Wars. 

But in the end what media companies must get their heads around is that nothing should come before the consumer.  This is somewhat of a novel concept in this business.  Historically network business models haven’t put consumer choice at the center.  Often, how much they got paid wasn’t necessarily dependent on how many people watched.  That world is evaporating quickly as many, myself included, have noted.

The real danger for media companies continuing to ignore this problem is if they don’t solve it someone else will, and maybe in a way not to their liking. John Malone has said a number of times that there is no reason should Netflix exist.  The technology and the content were in the hands of the cable companies and the programmers to create such a service long before Netflix came on the scene.  But concerns about turf and control were put in front of serving consumers and as a result distributors and programmers got their clocks cleaned by a nimble, tech savvy start up unburdened by legacy thinking.  Netflix just focused on making things better for consumers.

At the start of 2023 we are at another pivot point for the industry.  Tonight, millions of consumers will struggle to find an answer to the decades old question – what’s on tonight.  Let’s hope this is the year the industry finally comes together to help them find an answer.

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