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Technology will save TV, student says

Network TV is dead! Long live network TV!

Since Apple announced on Oct. 12 that certain TV programs would be sold through iTunes, the same source that fills iPods with music, iTunes customers have purchased more than 1 million videos of their favorite ABC-Disney shows.

With Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! set to dance to the iTunes tune -- selling television content online, on demand -- it seems the era of recliners, remote controls and ratings is coming to an end.

But maybe not, says Ivan Askwith, a graduate student in literature and a media analyst with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium.

In an essay appearing online in Slate on Nov. 1, Askwith suggests that what is coming is a "new age of television in which fans have the power to keep their favorite series in production, and producers have the opportunity to create more elaborate, controversial and innovative programs."

Fans are gaining power from their wallets. Purchasing episodes of favorite shows provides production funds. This, in turns, fuels more creativity, he says. "The iTunes distribution model gives the networks a huge opportunity to reinvent themselves," he writes in his essay, titled, "TV You'll Want to Pay For."

"As iTunes and its inevitable competitors offer more broadcast-television content, producers won't have to compromise their programs to meet broadcast requirements. Episode lengths can vary as needed, content can be darker, more topical and more explicit. If the networks are clever, these changes can supplement broadcast programming rather than replace it," he writes.

Askwith's new age of television is a democratic one, with the "enticing possibility that on-demand television will allow audiences to take an active role in programming the networks," he writes. Fans will soar up the entertainment food chain, determining the financial health, longevity and vitality of shows.

"Direct downloads will give fans of endangered shows the chance to vote with their wallets while a show is still on the air. And when a program does go off the air, direct payments from fans might provide enough revenue to keep it in production as an online-only venture," Askwith notes.

The math looks good, too, he writes.

"If we assume that the average hourlong drama costs $1.5 million per episode and downloads will cost around $2 per viewer, shows would only need a few million viewers to turn a small profit. Would a few million viewers pay $2 a week to download an hour of television? It's certainly not impossible," he says.

Direct download TV might also resuscitate interest in long-running, complex series, Askwith writes.

"While DVDs now give viewers the chance to catch up between seasons, on-demand television will allow anyone to catch up at any time, quickly and legally. This would be especially critical for plot-intensive shows like 'Alias,' which has been forced to 'reboot' its plot several times to make it accessible to new viewers," Askwith writes.

It's a win-win for viewers and networks, he writes. For fans, more power. For networks, more profit.

The full text of Askwith's column was posted on Slate on Tuesday, Nov. 1. Visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 16, 2005 (download PDF).

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