Divining the Future of Television
This piece was originally written for Correspondence Magazine.
By Sarah Ullman
Writing about and working with YouTube creators is my livelihood. Inevitably, this means that I must have an opinion about Television. When a client or a curious reader asks me to divine the future of television, the question is usually accompanied by their furrowed brow. The subtext of their query is actually about the lack of a future: “Will YouTube snuff TV out of existence?” They’re worried about the kids, they say. Those kids today—what are they watching? What will become of Television (capital T)?
Is internet-native television-length content still Television? What is the Platonic ideal of Television? Is its essential quality the pipes through which it is delivered or the narrative qualities of its content? If the essence of Television is the qualities of its content, then Television has a life and a purpose in the future.
The “Answer” (Really Just Another Question)
To answer the question, we must digress:
Firstly, let’s distinguish between the 4K (4000 pixel resolution) screens ensconced in living rooms and the stories and characters that make television so compelling. “Television” is already distributed via the internet on Netflix, Hulu, and network owned-and-operated websites. Those who worry about the specific pipes through which television formats are delivered have a very good reason to be worried. Digital natives grew up watching television on the internet and will not change their consumption habits when they come of age.
If not the method of delivery, is the essence of television the qualities of its programming? Television formats were designed to accommodate advertising breaks. The half-hour comedy and the hour-long drama have very specific formulaic story rhythms and conventions designed to maximize the TV advertising revenue model. The structure determines the content. All stories are written to match the technical requirements of the platforms on which they are delivered, and television is a beautifully specific example.
The internet removes many of those platform requirements, although many networks simply swap TV ads for mid-stream ads. TV content that is native to the internet (Hulu, Netflix, Amazon) is beginning to evolve: longer (or shorter) shows, non-traditional subject matter (“Transparent,” “Orange Is the New Black”), and expanded world views and characters that you might actually encounter in the course of a life well-lived. The internet is funny like that: it sucks us in, a world unto itself that often reflects “real life” more accurately than “real” life itself. Television is feeling the influence of the internet and evolving to survive as its platform restrictions are removed.
The True Answer (A Tale of Contrast and Interdependence)
YouTube and Television are sisters; they are inextricably related but with completely separate identities.
Television is a troubadour with two faces, each adorned with a drama mask: one happy (the half-hour comedy) and one sad (the hour-long drama). We invite Television into our homes to tell tales of Khaleesi, cartoon-yellow families from Springfield, and Festivus. On these nights, we recline, flip channels, and enjoy, soothed by the well-worn rhythms of the story. Now happy, now sad, now happy.
YouTube is an algorithmic search oracle: seek and ye shall find. Visit YouTube, and the cursor blinks in an empty search bar, waiting to answer your question. The YouTube oracle is a hydra with infinite faces as diverse as the infinite varieties of human emotion: happy and sad, yes, but also vlogs, haul videos, ASMR, unboxings, and no-scope kill montages.
The YouTube oracle answers questions, literal or emotional, with videos. A YouTube video is not required to have a story (though it can), but it is required to hold your attention. In a jungle-like ecosystem, watch time is the technical requirement of this platform and the only way to survive, unlike Television, which depends on both ratings and development executives. The structure determines the content. YouTube best practices are focused on discovery and audience retention rather than any specific story structure; this tight focus on capturing eyeballs is the reason YouTube is bleeding Television’s audience dry. These beings are so vastly different from one another because their distribution platforms have vastly different technical requirements.
On YouTube, attention is a revenue-generating commodity not just during “upfronts,” but from moment to moment. For this reason, niche content and stories that would never see the light of day in Television are the mainstay of the YouTube ecosystem.
At its heart, this is the reason scripted Television content struggles to thrive on YouTube. Television story structure is not designed to hold attention in the immediate, grasping way that YouTube’s algorithm requires. It’s written for another platform and another more passive setting. Those kids today; they will watch what holds their attention, whether it’s honesty, accessibility, or curiosity.
At the same time, YouTube desperately grasps at a piece of the enormous pie that is TV advertising revenue, so it adjusts the user experience to be more friendly to Television’s scripted content. Television content could thrive on YouTube if Google’s engineers wanted it to succeed. And they do; Google does want and need that revenue, and so the platform will inch closer to serving scripted Television. Close, but not too far.
The immediate future will see YouTube and Television dance uneasily with one another, if only because interdependence is necessary for survival. The YouTube oracle will not extinguish the Television troubadour. Instead, both beings will evolve and change to reach for what the other possesses: YouTube has the audience and Television has the money–for now.
Sarah Ullman (@thesillysully) is a writer and creative consultant focusing on the YouTube ecosystem. She writes a weekly newsletter about the business of YouTube called “The Jungle” (subscribe here) and