Death to the Networks

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At a Los Angeles luncheon last week, some broadcast-network entertainment chiefs predicted the death of one of their own networks within the next few years. We think that is a low estimate. In a few years, none of the broadcast networks will exist—at least not in the way we know them now.

That is because lining up a bunch of shows, sticking commercials into them and delivering them to people waiting patiently on the other end of the programming pipe is a dying concept. Programmers know it, and advertisers know it.

That model will likely remain part of the mix, but it will be only one mode in the way we receive programming. New “consumer-controlled” media will let viewers choose their entertainment like never before, and they'll be watching on everything from a 60-inch screen in the living room to a little window on their cellphone.

Creating workable copyright-protection laws that are fair to consumers and content creators is directly related to that new universe. Before the copyright issue is decided, the media revolution will have a built-in speed bump.

But what the eventual “death of the networks as we know them” means is actually the birth of hundreds of new networks, from regional diginets to networks of opportunity that form and die with the lifespan of a fruit fly. The Web will be a big part of the new networked-media model. We'll literally Google for programs.

The smartest media executives are embracing the change that otherwise would choke them. At a media conference last week, Robert Iger, who will become Walt Disney Co.'s chief executive officer this fall, called the change in how consumers get their media a “great migration” and proudly cited Disney's ESPN, which, like a kid in the techno playground, is jumping on every media platform out there to see if it's worth playing with.

Iger seems ready to take Disney properties, including ABC, to the next phase. But the big question is how “traditional” broadcast networks develop multiple media versions. And the answer to that question comes from creating television without stifling technology or penalizing consumers who want content to conform to their technological environment. No one has ever accused the broadcast networks of embracing change, but this time it is how they will survive.

Along the way, some of the technological breakthroughs won't catch on or will be modified. (Older readers will remember Betamax and cellphones that were about the size of a loaf of bread.) Already, almost everybody has started doing cellphone-content deals. We're not convinced that, long term, there will be an appetite for consuming critical amounts of content on teeny-tiny screens, but there may well be a business in bits and bursts. And broadcasters have to be in that space just in case.

The transition period may require investing in a number of different delivery models as insurance against missing out on a winner. That could mean investment without immediate return, something else the debt-loaded consolidated media companies aren't wild about. But, like cable's expensive broadband remake, the way to become a leader is to take chances and run faster than everybody else.

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