Play it again, Sam

Stewart Schley
Nov 1 · 11 min read

I have seen the future of television. And it is music.

It took decades, consumed billions of dollars and caused incalculable career wreckage, but television has managed to achieve its penultimate transformation: It has become music.

That is to say, television has taken on the salient characteristics of a medium that consistently has been out in front of video in terms of delivery mode, audience behavior and economic contribution. The television industry, which naively thought it could avoid the sort of disruption that roiled recorded music starting in the late 1990s, has in fact undergone an identical reckoning, and has now popped out on the other side humbled by the recognition that all along, music was showing it the path to its future, except nobody was paying attention. “I watch the ripples change their size,” sang David Bowie. “But never leave the stream.”

If you’re in the television business, the sooner you recognize that the water has now indeed jumped the bank, and adjust your business model to suit the reality, the sooner you won’t lose a few billion dollars heading in the wrong direction.

We can start by recognizing that television, like music before it, has embraced these attributes:

  • It’s recorded. Duh, right? But seriously, it’s an important advancement. To be recorded means to have committed a thing to a record, such that is becomes a stored, repeatable event. The album version of the The Verve’s irrepressible “Bittersweet Symphony” is a stored representation of performance that once was a live moment, or at least stitched together from live moments. Except now, it’s no longer live, it’s recorded, and thus, it’s repeatable. This did not used to be true for television, which lived and thrived for a long time entirely on the premise that it would vanish.
  • It’s on demand. Gonna date myself here, but in high school, my mates and I adopted a deep track from the second REO Speedwagon album, a raver called “Like You Do,” as our signature Friday evening anthem. All five minutes and 54 seconds was available to us as party backdrop whenever we wanted, so long as we had the tape or the LP and an available sound system. So whether it was in the car at full blast or in Sleyster’s mom’s living room (also: sorry about those rug stains, Mrs. Sleyster), we had access to it, and we could press “play” at will.
  • It’s compatible with multiple environments. The 8-track player wedged into the dashboard of the Camaro my brother Scott and I cruised around in could be made to spurt out “Like You Do” whenever we wanted, and of course we owned the vinyl as well, for playback on bedroom and living room stereos, and Rick Phillips had fashioned a tape with the song on Side 2 of a cassette deck. So pretty much any music listening mode was covered. Not so with television programs in the day: They showed up on a nominal screen encased in a heavy frame, usually situated in somebody’s living room, and only when a TV network decreed. Television was not portable or extensible or available when you wanted.
  • It’s worth replaying. Here’s the final ingredient. Repeat listening. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that song. A few hundred, easy. A thousand, even? Maybe. The thing never fails me. This is similar to the conceit a woman from Denton, Texas named Kate Galyon expressed when she recently told the Wall Street Journal about why she just began watching the entire set of reruns of NBC’s “The Office.” For the 11th time. Reading “The psychology behind the rewatch” is a revelation, so I hope you’ll follow the link (although there’s probably a firewall).

Okay, welcome back. This behavior is new, and important. Television programs can now be re-watched whenever and almost wherever somebody wishes. Television does not have to be “new” to be satisfying. In 2018, nearly 500 new, original TV series appeared in the U.S., according to research published by FX Networks. But in Denton, Texas, Ms. Galyon was perfectly happy to ignore that bounty in favor of rewatching all 201 episodes of “The Office,” chronologically, on Netflix. In Jacksonville, Fla., the Journal tells us, retail store manager Derek Hay maintains a similar habit, streaming reruns of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” (also chronologically) every week.

Friends, take note, because these people are the future of television.

The traditional viewpoint has been that television constantly needed to be fed the new and the novel and the hip and the current because that’s where audiences gravitated. The idea being that television content would become stale and irrelevant very quickly.

Ephemeral medium
Was this ever true? Probably not. But humans tend to dope out reality based on what appears in front of them. And part of the reason we believed this — that television would not stand up to repeat viewing, as music invites repeat listening — is because we had no evidence to show otherwise. Lacking another model, we blithely thought of television as an ephemeral thing. It came and it went and then it disappeared. It was like live sports-on-TV is today, but all the time: If you weren’t there to watch the broadcast, you missed it and it was gone. Thus was reinforced an idea that the monetizable part of television was its currency, its now-ness. Unlike music, which could be repeated and enjoyed whenever, television was fleeting. It was here-and-gone. In the autumn of 1976, the latest episode of “M*A*S*H” was on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on CBS and if you missed it, you missed it. TV network advertising salespeople in the day made a killing off this shared belief, that the value was created not just because the ratings were impressive but because the advertising avails were limited and scarce, because the thing was about to vanish. It was a get-in-while-the-getting’s-good thesis.

Obviously, music operated on a very different equation. Even linear, ad-supported music — we knew it as “radio” — lived on a model of repeats, not fleeting exposure. How many times in your life have you heard “Stairway to Heaven” on FM radio? Probably enough such that you cannot hear the word “bustle” without immediately inferring “hedgerow.”

Granted, one incarnation of the “repeat” model has existed for a long time in television in the form of reruns. These are replays of post-premier episodes aired by TV stations and cable channels that licensed syndicated episodes. But here we still lacked the all-important “on-demand” element of viewer (or listener) control that music has long delivered. You still had to be around to catch the show when the network televised it.

VCR nation
That began to change at least microscopically in the early 1980s as people began to capture TV shows for time-shifted viewing on Betamax or VHS machines. But there was nowhere near the convenience and immediacy and scale music already had achieved. Because remember the arduous progression: You had to buy a VCR, connect it to a TV set, purchase a box of blank tapes, learn how to set the clock correctly, remember to hit “record” when the show began (or otherwise set a timer to begin recording at the appropriate moment), make sure to tune the VCR in advance to the correct channel, rewind the tape and then settle in to press “play.” True, this was not so perilous or demanding as, say, killing a buffalo with a spear in order to have dinner, but it was a bit challenging for many of us. Compare it with music: Somebody had already done all the heavy lifting. The song was just waiting. We didn’t have to capture it on our own. We bought the turntable and placed the record on it. Didn’t even have to set a clock. It’s worth recounting that the economics that propelled the VCR era were not based on recording and “time-shifting” TV shows, but on playing back pre-recorded tapes (and later, discs) mostly containing movies and porn. Even in the heyday of VCR nation, watching manually recorded TV was a fringe behavior. We hadn’t yet brought to scale an easy, convenient mechanism for finding and watching a recorded TV program at will.

Now, that’s different. The revolution that brought television closer to a music distribution model (remember: repeatable, on-demand and accessible) gained momentum with the introduction of the VCR-on-steroids called the digital video recorder, or DVR, starting in 1999. These handy boxes got us closer to a music model for video but didn’t quite get over the scale hump. Penetration by household soared for a while, but has since topped out at around 50% in the U.S., per Nielsen, and is beginning to recede. Also, keep in mind DVRs weren’t portable; they were tethered to TV sets, not mobile screens. But we should at least give the DVR credit for sensing that the music model could be applied to television.

Since then, some smart people have taken the recorded music model to its modern extreme, which is basically to store everything and put it up for our choosing on multiple screens. Which is why “The Office” isn’t a Thursday night thing as it once was in the heyday, but an anytime thing on Netflix (and soon to be on Peacock, the NBC streaming service that’s reclaiming the rights.) Streaming video is now more prevalent than traditional (linear) pay television, with roughly 70% of U.S. households using streaming services as of last summer. (Deloitte, Digital Media Trends Report, 2018.)

So to encapsulate: The large-scale availability of pre-recorded television in convenient form factor, across multiple devices and available on demand is relatively new, and it’s why for a long time TV didn’t look like music but now does. We’re now fully immersed in a world of recorded, on-demand television. For the first time. Like, ever. In civilization. Music started doing this stuff long ago, first in the form of large-scale availability of recordings, and later in the form of all-you-can listen digital storefronts like Spotify that present basically all the world’s recorded music, with the song you desire maybe three or four clicks away. TV only now is catching up.

The “Office” devotee from Texas may be the extreme representation, but don’t lose sight of her altogether, because it’s important to recognize that for the first time on a massively convenient scale, television is repeatable. I’ll bet that in the last few months you’ve couched yourself in front of the screen and watched a favorite episode of a favorite oldie TV show. So have lots of other people. “While I’ll give anything a chance…I do find myself repeating more shows than starting new ones,” wrote journalist and “Mad Men” devotee Kaitlin Gates in September. In March, MSN lifestyle writer Chanel Vargas wrote “There’s something in the nostalgia of rewatching old favorites that is just so much more satisfying than starting anything on my never-ending list of new Netflix recommendations.”

The irony here is these are aspirations we’ve always had. We just didn’t have the technology platforms to solve them.

More kinship
Now, this has changed, both in music and in television. If you want to know where television’s heading, you might pay attention to Spotify, where today more than 108 million people pay for premium subscriptions to all-you-can-listen wells of music which they can enjoy repeatedly, on-demand and across multiple devices and environments.

And what is Spotify discovering? For one thing, that people are willing to pay for a subscription-styled model rather than a pay-per-listen (or in TV-speak, pay-per-view) approach that feels like they’re getting dinged to death with every micro-payment on the credit card. And that people love being able to assemble their own personalized collections, but also love knowing what other people are listening to and recommending. The Spotify playlist has supplanted the 1970s radio deejay as arbiter of what’s worthy and what gets heard in music.

Probably the most meaningful aspect of the TV-becomes-music thesis is that there is value aplenty to be unlocked from “library” content once thought to be an inferior also-ran (or “long tail”) of the digital media value chain. Some of the prominent streaming services have recognized this reality, which is why we’re seeing multi-billion-dollar deals for TV chestnuts like “The Office” (heading to NBCU’s Peacock) or “Friends” (to WarnerMedia’s HBO Max) or “Seinfeld” (remaining on Netflix). These are companies that have access to troves of big-data learnings about what people are watching, and when, and how. The valuations applied to these “old” TV shows tells us that there are enduring classics in video just as there are enduring classics in recorded music. And that having access to these programs across the same interface that also yields fresh content levels the playing field between the new and the old.

And why not? Is “Sway,” the boozy successor to “Brown Sugar” on side 1 of “Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones, any less magical today than it was in 1971? Of course not. The thing still sounds fresh and vital the second it starts streaming from Apple Music or Tidal or Amazon Music.

This is one reason why the recorded version of the song has racked up 1.7 million views on YouTube Music since somebody posted the original album version in June of 2009.

From an investment or an economic perspective, the adoption of a music-like model for television means there are new means of producing returns on investment that didn’t used to exist, or previously were obscured by imposed limitations on exhibition. It means the value of currency, as in the here-and-now of television, is diminished or at least humbled in light of competition for attention and engagement by a thousand other titles that may be dated, but are still really good.

In fact, I think the TV-music symbiosis goes a level deeper, in that there’s a neat analogy between record labels, bands and songs, on one hand, and TV networks, producers and TV shows, on the other.

In this view, the record label (Sony Music, Island Records) is tantamount to the TV network: basically nobody cares. I can no more name the label for which My Chemical Romance recorded “The Black Parade” in 2006 than I can tell you what TV network was associated with the 1994–94 teen drama “My So-Called Life.” (Okay I just looked it up, I was ABC and kudos to them.)

But the band: the band matters. They’re the creators, the bringers-to-life of albums (tantamount to TV series) and individual songs (episodes). In television, the band is the person or the people who produces TV content. I think that going forward we’re going to see much greater public prominence of producers and showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, J.J. Abrams, Reese Witherspoon and other television creators than we do today. We’ll align our tastes with those of our favorite producers, and count on them to carry the day regardless of what “record label” (or “TV network” or “streaming service”) they choose to ally with.

Let’s take it a step further: The ideal world would be one where there’s no TV network or streaming service whatsoever. Instead, the world gets push-button access to a vast range of great TV shows made by great producers, available under a common interface. This of course is the Spotify-zation of television, wherein a content portal gives us access to almost everything. We’re not there yet, and may never be, given that vestiges of “old television” remain in the form of the TV show rights that are Balkanized across TV’s version of “record labels” (HBO, NBCU, WarnerMedia, AMC Networks, etc.). But wouldn’t it be something if, over time, the delivery mode shifted to resemble the modern music model? If we could pick-and-choose not from the constrained pool of the programs available from Netflix, but the entire vast maw of television available from…everyone? From Led Zeppelin to Lizzo. From “Seinfeld” to “Succession.” Forget the “HBO” in HBO Max. What we really want is just the Max part: everything. That would be cool. That would be like music.

Stewart Schley writes about media, technology, sports and whatnot for research firms and the occasional business magazine. Explore both the vastness and the vacancy of his thoughts further at @stewartschley, stewartschley.com or, if you’re a music person, at 33hifi.com.

Stewart Schley

Written by

Writer, editor, media industry analyst. Fan of electric guitars. Believes in Santa Claus and baseball. Some light dusting.

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