Who wants their FTA?

Who wants their FTA?

Posted January 25th, 2012 by debritz

I have been involved in a discussion on Twitter on how much longer free-to-air television will be a force in Australia. I ventured that FTA stations would be in trouble within 10 years if they fail to change their primary emphasis from being distributors of shows produced elsewhere to creating their own content.

Two other people disagreed -- not to my proposition, but to the timing. One said it might not be as soon as 10 years, another said it would be more like 5-8 years when we see the first FTA station fold.

Now, of course, all the FTA networks will deny they are in trouble, but they most certainly are. The fact of the matter is that they don't have a collective monopoly any more; viewers can already access the content they want in many ways other than sitting down in front of a TV set at a designated time.

To use a current example, sure you can get plenty of The Big Bang Theory on Channel Nine and its sister station Go! If you're a fan, though, you can pay for a Foxtel subscription and get even more of it on the Comedy Channel.

Of course, both the FTA and pay-TV options rely on you watching whichever episode they decide to screen when they decide to broadcast it. You can time-shift it to watch later, or maybe stream it on the network's catch-up site, but you can't see it right now. However, if you're a BBT tragic, and you're prepared to take the legal risk, you can download the episodes you want to see when you want to see them. Say you missed a particular episode from series 1, or you want to show your best friend an ep you think they'd enjoy, well it's out there for the picking.

While Hollywood rightly wants to stem the tide of illegal downloading, the genie is already out of the lamp. They can't prosecute everybody who shares torrents, so the only real solution available to content creators is to enable people to download what they want, when they want it - and to make them pay for it.

And, when that happens, as it surely will, the FTA networks (and, to a lesser extent, pay TV) will have lost their biggest earner. Producers will either sell their content directly or through a model similar to iTunes or Amazon's Kindle book store. No role for the TV networks there.

For a short time -- be it five or 10 or 15 years -- FTA will continue play a role in introducing new shows to audiences, but that function will eventually be taken over completely by social media (in whatever form or forms it will take in the future) and other means of peer-to-peer recommendation.

Bottom line: the direct distribution of TV shows will bypass the existing networks, so to survive they will have to ramp-up the production of original content -- be it news, drama, comedy series, reality shows or whatever.

The only way for them to survive will be to sell this original content, or make it available via an advertiser-supported model, on demand.