No place is more appropriate for a TV convention than Venice in November. Quiet and melancholy after the tourist season, the city is perched precariously on its own reflection. Every morning grey waters swallow the sidewalks, while sleepy shop owners lay out battered wooden planks outside their doors, so that once glamorous metropolis suddenly looks like a flooded bathroom. Come mid-day, the water releases the pavement back to its ancient grandeur, and the shining city yet again seems frozen in time, untouched by centuries. But the next flood is never too far. Venice is a great metaphor for the evolution of things… television among them.
As I walk over the make-shift sidewalk, watching the water recede, I wonder if I should use this analogy at a party tonight. I am in Venice for a satellite TV summit, and it has given me a glimpse of the immense ingenuity the industry has developed to fight for survival. Thematic TV is exploding, and we now have a channel on every subject imaginable. There are channels about countries, hobbies, passions and even emotions like nostalgia. There are channels about channels, channels inside channels and channels split into channels, with channels popping out like Russian dolls one from another. 10 years ago, fresh from the MIT, I would have surely spoiled the party by telling my new friends that launching a new channel today is like building a palazzo in a city that’s sinking.
An average consumer with his remote control is overwhelmed by choice. As we know by now, too much choice leads to no choice – we simply turn to brands we know. Not only will the few known channels always steal the spotlight, but digital mega-brands – YouTube, Facebook — will further dilute the attention of younger generations. So why create new linear channels, spending fortunes on production and satellite uplink, fighting a losing battle for the attention of those who no longer have attention to give?
As I wander through the winding streets, crossing bridges over sparkling canals, I see debonair gondolieri glide by with their wide-eyed fare, smiling as if their job was eternal. It’s way past the tourist season, yet suddenly the narrow pathways are resounding with languages from all over the world, and I can’t help but feel excited about the beauty of this place, the energy and magic of it. It may vanish one day but it sure is here now, a great setting which makes every photo special, every step an adventure.
A bag in a window catches my eye – I am standing in front of a true bottega veneta, anonymous shop, not the famous brand. Inside the bag there’s a little card, telling me to protect it “from rain and other liquids”. Is it the authenticity of this message or the no-name perfection of the bag that makes me buy it? Will I watch a channel I know nothing about because it speaks to me in this way?
There’s something to be said about a team of professionals getting passionate about a subject and creating a TV broadcast about it. A 24/7 linear TV channel today costs less than a B-movie in Hollywood. With a smart distribution plan it can make enough money to survive on, and — if it can get high quality content out to the Web and on-demand platforms, and be clever about social networks — it has a good chance to rise above the digital flood of amateur competitors and find its audience. It will of course not be as large as the TV audience of the past. In fact, television is getting more like the publishing industry, with multitude of niche magazines serving small segments of the market. There are many adjustments in sight – from content producers and rights owners, who will need to lower their prices to advertisers who will need to learn the value of truly targeted TV audience. And while you might not become the next MTV or CNN, you certainly have a better chance for a sound commercial model than a 2.0 website.
So is the future of linear TV safe? I guess that depends on how far the future is.
It might take a long time for Venice to sink – for now it still has it’s prime-time. I hope that rain and other liquids stay kind to this magical town.