If all content is just data, what does that mean for quality television?

Why AT&T Killed Google Voice” by Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal is an insightful piece that’s been making the rounds lately. It’s worth reading. I’ll wait until you’re done.

The basic principle is that old media delivery companies–phone companies and cable TV–are trying as hard as they can to hold back universal fungibility of data pipes. TV and voice streams are just data, but cable and phone companies can charge a whole lot more for those services than they can for pushing the equivalent generic bits over the network.

I agree with most of the article, but I’m worried about the implications for TV. Today we are seeing a lot of really great television being made, subsidized by the station model that aggregates a wide array of content for a single station and then further aggregates a set of stations into a standard subscription package. So under this model, HBO can make a high-caliber show like The Wire–reported to be a money loser in terms of viewership and direct sales–and still be happy to make similar shows that build the network’s reputation. Cheaper shows make more immediate financial sense, but shows like The Wire are loss leaders for stations (or packages of stations).

The current digital crisis of the news business–disaggregation of unprofitable journalism and profitable miscellanea–is going to hit TV sooner or later. Disaggregation of TV content might make it harder to make great complex serial television (although we’d be paying less for it).

On the other hand, it might make it easier to mobilize audiences to finance really great projects. To Fox, Firefly‘s set of rabidly dedicated fans were no valuable than the same number of wishy-washy viewers of some lesser show (less so in fact, if they represented a demographic that brought lower advertising prices). There was no way to translate the intensity of the fans’ devotion into enough revenue to justify continuing the show. In a world of disaggregated TV, things might have turned out differently, with higher prices compensating for smaller audiences.

Then again, the movie industry relies by choice solely on audience size, with tickets to each movie the same price (varying by theater, but not by movie), and the blockbusters are rarely very good.