Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Can Apple fix what's wrong with television?

June 4, 2012: 6:28 AM ET

The TV business may be broken beyond even Cupertino's powers of redemption

Family watching television, c. 1958. National Archives

FORTUNE -- Does this sound like your household?

  • We almost never watch television shows when they are broadcast anymore  (with the very notable exception of live sports)
  • We rarely watch shows with ads, even on a DVR
  • We watch a lot of TV and movie content, but always on demand and almost never with ads (We're now so used to watching shows via Netflix or iTunes or HBO that ads now seem like bizarre intrusions)
  • We get our news from the Internet, article by article, clip by clip. The only time we watch TV news live is when there's a crisis or huge event happening somewhere. (You still can't beat TV for that, but soon, news networks will also be streamed).
  • We watch TV and movie content on 4 different screens, depending on which is convenient (TV, laptops, phones, iPad)

That description, posted Sunday by Business Insider's Henry Blodget, is the television industry's nightmare, because it suggests that the business models that have sustained it for decades are broken. As Blodget points out:

The majority of what we pay our cable company is wasted. We get broadband Internet from our cable company, and we use that constantly. But we also get 500 channels that we almost never watch, along with a couple (HBO, Tennis Channel) that we pay extra for and do watch occasionally.

The point Blodget sets out to make is that the TV business is precisely where the newspaper industry was in the 1990s and early 2000s: Totally screwed, and not yet aware of it.

What he doesn't address is what that means for Apple (AAPL), whose plans to revolutionize television were topic No. 1 in the tech press after Tim Cook's appearance at All Things Digital last week.

There is much Apple could do to streamline and rationalize the TV interface -- making it easier to find what you want to watch when you want to watch it. And no company has done more in terms of integrating the four screens of Blodget's household (see here for what happened when he discovered AirPlay).

What's not clear is what Apple is going to do about television's broken business models. Unless the company plans to build a nationwide wireless network, Apple's version of television is going to be as dependent as we are today on the local monopolies that have wired our homes for broadband. And until the networks have been brought to their knees and are ready deal, their programming is going to be riddled with ads.

As Blodget describes it, fundamental changes are underway, but they're going to take time, and they're going to be painful:

"Some of the content produced by networks will still be consumed (and, therefore, produced)," he writes, "but the idea of getting "affiliate fees" and selling advertising for each of dozens of branded networks seems absurd. This change is already occurring, of course: Traditional networks are being replaced by Netflix, iTunes, and uber-networks like 'NBC Universal' and 'Time Warner.' There is so much money in the network business right now that, initially, this shift won't mean much. Over time, however, it will. Unprofitable networks will be merged with profitable ones. Unprofitable shows and overpaid talent will be cut. Overpaid managers will get fired. Production costs, on aggregate, will drop. Sets, crews, newsgathering, etc. will be consolidated. The fat will get squeezed out of the system."

For the rest of his provocative post, see here.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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