A Hard Day's Night

lettermanThe dominoes are falling fast in the wake of NBC Universal’s decision to ax its experiment with late night in prime time. What seemed a simple revolt by local affiliate stations may spell the beginning of a complete reworking of mainstream media around the emerging realtime architecture of Twitter.

RSS and its podcasting offspring triggered a process of democratization that offered users a way of aggregating news and entertainment under their own control. Most media outlets constrained such access to their programming, but YouTube gave users a way to flout the law and Google a way to look the other way while shows like The Daily Show and copyrighted musical performances were made available over the net. As with Napster, free as in media morphed over time to iTunes, the Kindle, and soon the iTablet.

The disconnect between broadcasting audiences and the economic underpinnings of prime and post-prime time has reached the boiling point. Now that Twitter and its gesture-based Follow architecture has reached a critical mass, audiences can set alerts to notify them of breaking news, analysis, and commentary. If available, these nuggets of information can be played off in realtime and shared with targeted micro-communities while the information is at its most valuable. Unfortunately for local broadcast stations, this destroys a substantial portion of their revenue, much as craigslist eats newspaper classifieds’ lunch.

Follow the money and it’s streaming away from a scheduled architecture to a DVRed and eventually on-demand personalized portal. On the desktop Silverlight is leveraged by Netflix to move that disruptor (see boarded-up Hollywood Video stores) from FedEx to Instant access over the Net. On the iPhone/Nexus platform, Ustream streams realtime events over the cracked-open 3G network. How can the local news compete with an interactive identity wand that lets you download an app in seconds moments after you are told about it via your aggregator filter router?

Once the affiliates said No, the house of cards collapsed. NBC faces the same stupid choice they made when they opted for the middle-of-the-road Leno over the real Carson heir Letterman. By reinstalling Leno after the news, they roll the clock back 7 months (really 6 years) and create a monster called Conan that will destroy what’s left of the Tonight Show heritage. A Fox show will spawn a Late Night Fox show, and suddenly we go from 4 shows to 6. Talk show glut favors a new power alignment around micro-communities, where Letterman and his even funnier followup Ferguson will split the newer audience with Conan and leave Leno with a less and less valuable (and mostly asleep) audience.

Interestingly, CBS has used this opportunity to post Letterman material about the crisis on YouTube, thereby promoting their funnier shows and signaling a move to on-demand. Already CBS makes its Evening News broadcast available on-demand; will the rest of its live shows be far behind? And remember Comcast’s On Demand Online version, which provides all of its on-demand content online at no additional cost. Plug a Mac Mini into your HDMI port and you’re off to the races. This will quickly start making lotso money for the networks with micro-community strategies, which in turn will tip other networks into alignment.

Also note Google’s marketing model for Nexus: no money on advertising local or network, but clickable pitches first in search and soon in Gmail, GApps, Maps, Google Voice, and so on. Hello, future. Same thing will happen in Late Night, where YouTube “breaking news” excerpts will give way to impulse buys (look at how iTunes carved up albums into dollar-a-pop singles) and then to bundling, aka the new networks. With Nexus One and the iPhone converging in disruption of the broadcast model, producers will begin to flow where the incremental pools of money live. These YouTube excerpts not only promote the parent shows but the new bundled streams that alert us.

That’s why Conan told NBC to take a hike: enough already of pandering to Leno’s watered down silent majority. They don’t want him, never did, and besides it’s no longer 11:30 anymore but what time it’s released to the network on-demand that counts. As Twitter sentiment filters across the country and time zones, more and more of us will start choosing which show to rack up based on implicit gestures from our affinities. As advertisers rush to reach these socially-cultivated audiences, the networks (studios?) will more to an on-demand model where shows are made available almost as soon as they pixelate the bleeps. Oh wait, maybe they’ll make bleep-free versions available as adult on-demand.

Once these dynamics settle in, we’ll be voting for not just the new late night schedule but prime time as well, which many of us have already started doing with DVRing House and watching Heroes with the kids, or preferably sampling the on-demand version when alerted. The conventions of 11:30 will not fade, just as waking up to the Today Show will continue to flourish. But inevitably attempts at splitting the baby like NBC tried with Leno and Conan will accelerate the decline of one-size-fits-all broadcasting and reward competitors with a free gift of material with which to market the new realtime platform.