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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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The sunset of broadcast TV

8 April 2021

Television has been around for more than half a century.

In the few short decades after it's public release, TV changed the world forever.

Instead of having to dress up and go out to a theatre to get your audio-visual entertainment, TV brought stories, music, plays, news and documentaries to your very own living room in a way that radio could never match.

By the 1960s, life began to revolve around the mysterious glowing box sat in the corner of the living room. People's evening activities were now scheduled around the broadcast times of their favourite programs and chat around the smoko room was generally about what folk had seen on their TV the night before.

By the 1970s, television had become the opiate of the masses with virtually every household in the nation containing at least one set, perhaps even one capable of displaying the new-fangled "colour" signal.

Many a fortune was made through the power and ubiquitous nature of TV.

Whereas, just a few years earlier, the only real celebrities in the world were associated with the silver screen of the movie industry, now fame and fortune followed those who became regular faces in our living rooms.

Similarly, massive media empires were built on the back of the demand for TV content and ownership of the "channels" over which this stuff was broadcast.

For many years broadcast TV ruled supreme. Sure, there were variations on the way it was delivered -- starting with cabled circuits and then spreading to satellite based technology but the basic concept was the same. The programs were broadcast out according to a schedule and people tuned in (or recorded) the shows they wanted to see.

And then the internet came along.

Initially our internet connections were delivered over puny 9600 or 14.4Kbps dial-up modems and that meant useful video was out of the question. When video did come to the internet it arrived in the form of the RealPlayer, a piece of software that would display god-awful video in a format of 128 pixels square and with significant levels of buffering. It was bad, but it could only get better.

As bandwidth grew, so did the delivery of video content over the Net. The RealPlayer was replaced by the media-player based on Adobe Flash in 2005, the service that was to become YouTube appeared on the radar.

Thanks to things like ADSL and connectivity speeds measured in Mbps rather than Kbps, streaming video was becoming a viable service.

Jump ahead 16 years to today and it very much looks as if video streaming services are about to push some broadcast TV options into the history books. Reports are increasingly indicating that broadcast television is not only becoming unprofitable but may even be unsustainable in the very near future. Perhaps the only broadcasters who will survive the next few years are those which are state-funded.

I have to admit that I have not watched broadcast TV now for about 15 years and I do not miss it for a second. Looking back I find it hard to believe that I lost so much of my life to sitting passively in front of a TV screen, soaking up whatever was being thrown at me. What a waste!

Okay, so now I spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of a computer screen soaking up videos from YouTube and other sources -- but at least I get to interact and choose exactly what I want to watch, when I want to watch it. Hmm... is that really any better?

In fact, on reflection, I wonder if Net-based Video On Demand (VOD) is actually even worse than broadcast TV in respect to the way it affects people's brains and perceptions.

At least in the early days of TV, when we had but one channel and had to watch whatever was being broadcast, we got some variety and exposure to new things. However, in a world where you can watch what you want when you want, I fear that people will simply disappear down very deep but narrow rabbit-holes and actually become quite myopic about the world around them. Opinions will deepen, perspectives will narrow and it might become very easy for some folk to even have trouble dealing with the demands of "the real world", if allowed to indulge themselves on VOD content.

Or maybe I'm over-thinking this.

Whatever the case, I really can't see ad-funded broadcast TV remaining in its current form for too much longer. After a few months on Netflix most people find it hard to return to a medium that is littered with a never-ending stream of ad-breaks and self-promotions. This will reduce the demand for broadcast TV and that reduces viewer numbers. With declining viewer numbers go declining ad revenues and profits. Once profits become losses, the writing is on the wall.

I'd love to hear from readers on this subject.

Do you still watch FTA broadcast TV?

Do you expect FTA broadcast TV to still be around in its present form in a decade's time?

Is streamed VOD and the rabbit-holes it can create, a potentially dangerous thing for society?

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