“That people will only watch television like this in the future is so obvious,” Jerry Seinfeld said this week at the Hulu upfront event for advertisers in New York City.
Seinfeld was talking about streaming of course, and his message was clear: subscription VOD services like Hulu will render traditional, live, linear channels obsolete, much as TV did to network radio in the 1950s. Like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen – who moved from radio to TV more than half a century ago – today’s shows will transition from broadcast and cable origination to on-demand, and the viewers will follow.
Seinfeld can be forgiven for hyperbole, considering that he was likely giddy over the bags of money Hulu is dropping on his doorstep in return for exclusive streaming of all 180 episodes of his 1989-98 NBC sitcom. But I think he’s wrong.
There’s no doubt that the TV paradigm is shifting, in a way that fundamentally benefits the viewer. But I think there will always be a place for smartly curated linear channels, and a program airing tonight on the MeTV classic TV network demonstrates why.
Tonight, retro-centric MeTV is airing the finale of M*A*S*H, a 150-minute film that attracted more than 125 million viewers in its initial broadcast on CBS in 1983. While Netflix, the Goliath to Hulu’s David, streams M*A*S*H, they don’t have the rights to the bittersweet final episode (in which the 3-year-long Korean War finally ended after 11 TV seasons). Unless you want to buy a DVD (or view a pirated version), MeTV’s airing is the only legitimate way to watch the finale on your TV, just like 77% of Americans with TVs did the night it was first broadcast.
In addition, MeTV has reunited cast members Alan Alda (Hawkeye), Loretta Swit (Margaret Houlihan), Jamie Farr (Klinger), Gary Burghoff (Radar), Wayne Rogers (Trapper, who left the series in 1975) and members of the creative team to reflect on the series, and the record-breaking finale.
MeTV, a broadcast network available in more than 90% of the U.S. (usually as a digital sub-channel of an over-the-air local station) offers more than just a linear feed of TV shows you could watch on various streaming services. They also provide creative curation and inventive programming blocks (like classic superhero shows on Saturday nights) that appeal to both the Boomers and Gen X’ers who watched these shows in their initial broadcast, and their kids and grandkids who are enjoying them for the first time.
I love the convenience of streaming. It’s thrilling to have easy access to every episode of shows (and movies) I love, and have loved for my entire life. But, in a landscape where there’s so much choice, having everything can almost feel like having nothing. There’s no call-to-action, no immediacy, no reason why I should watch one thing over another right now. But perhaps more importantly, there’s no shared experience.
Linear networks like MeTV and Turner Classic Movies offer not just the curation of smart programmers, they provide an opportunity for lovers of niche programming to feel less alone. Twitter users have latched on to this, by tweeting along with live airings of TV shows and movies and creating their own communities. But even if you’re not tweeting, there’s something fundamentally validating in the knowledge that you’re not the only person watching an episode of Lost in Space at midnight on a Saturday. (No cracks please. I love that show).
Live broadcasts are also an opportunity to encourage sampling by channel-surfing new viewers, in a way that streaming will never offer.
But perhaps most importantly, a linear network means that someone else is doing the work for you. Because sometimes you just want to plop down on the couch and watch, not assemble your own custom lineup from across multiple streaming platforms (and I speak from experience, because I subscribe to pretty much all of them).
Will on-demand streaming be a dominant force in TV? No doubt. In a sense, it already is. But creatively curated linear programming will always be an important option. They call TV viewers couch potatoes, not couch amateur TV executives for a very good reason. Never underestimate the laziness of the American public.