AT THE RISK OF BEING forced to hand in my pundit card, here is the most sweeping observation I can deliver about the future of TV and media: Anyone who purports to know what will happen five years from now should be viewed with skepticism, or maybe just hit with a pie.
Five years brings us to 2010, another one of those science-fiction milestones I hope to see myself, having already made it to “1984” and “2001.” And lest anyone forget, many 21st-century images had us teleporting from place to place or zooming around in flying cars.
There’s no question something big is happening in terms of media consumption. Whether it’s the (mostly anecdotal) growth of video-on-demand or the popularity of iPods, the renewed push by online media or modest declines in network advertising and theatrical attendance and simultaneous surge in DVD viewing of both, new technologies gradually are altering entrenched habits.
Advances are coming so quickly, however, and on so many fronts that there’s no algorithm for charting where the procession of blips will lead. Moreover, headline-seeking prognosticators are too prone to ignore or dismiss the inertia of a comfy couch, space-age home-entertainment system and our passive-media history, all impediments to revolutionary change.
Nevertheless, scanning newspapers or analyst reports regularly yields “the death of everything” forecasts, complete with gee-whiz figures embossed with a level of specificity that gives them the ring of legitimacy.
Chalk it up to having covered this business too long, perhaps, but after witnessing enough “a TiVo in every pot” or “HDTV in every living room” predictions of media Armageddon dissipate, it’s hard to get agitated by each bold new projection.
Take Newsweek, which eyeballed traditional home TV viewing in June and concluded, “All that is about to change.” New high-tech bells and whistles, the piece stated with absolute conviction, “will transform the experience,” at the same time siphoning off “$160 billion in lost media-company equity from piracy and ad skipping by 2010.”
That’s merely an estimate, but assuming it’s off by 15% in either direction, what’s $50 billion among friends?
Although somewhat more restrained, the New York Times could barely contain its enthusiasm about podcasting, citing research stating that “12 million people will be listening to podcasts as part of their media diet” by the end of the decade, giving new meaning to the line, “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”
Actually, that was from “2001.” In its sequel “2010,” Hal the super-computer needed to be reconnected after his brain short-circuited, which is the way I’ve felt wading through these impressive-sounding but wholly suspect exercises in extrapolation while searching for a Margaritaville-sized shaker of salt.
Alas, we live in a time when examining what’s happening now no longer suffices. Watch cable news and the emphasis lies on hypothesizing about what’s coming next, with little fear of reprisal if those semi-educated guesses go absurdly astray.
Science fiction, too, waves plenty of cautionary flags. As director James Cameron noted in “Watch the Skies!,” this month’s Turner Classic Movies documentary about Cold War movies that shaped the genre, none of those pointy spaceships in 1950s cinema remotely resembled the lunar module we watched agape a decade later.
“Our imagination was never able to predict what would really happen,” he said.
Yes, TV is undergoing a metamorphosis. Still, just because you can do something — say, watch “Lost” on your cell phone while ordering the tank top Naveen Andrews is wearing — doesn’t mean that people will. To venture one guess, I’ll wager it’ll be some time before entertainment becomes a wholly mobile, take-it-with-you exercise on a mass scale.
Or not. Back when he ran MGM TV’s distribution arm, Norman Horowitz once told me, “This show will be the biggest hit of the season. Unless it isn’t.” Sure, that’s honest, but such equivocation won’t get you invited back to “Hannity & Colmes.”
Those who choose to go out on a limb should be held accountable for the clarity, or lack thereof, of their crystal balls — not that this will dissuade enterprising chaps from holding forth about what to anticipate come 2010 and, once that year draws closer, the decade after that.
Personally, I’m still waiting on those flying cars — especially if the Hollywood Freeway continues to annoyingly bottleneck at Highland — like the ones they drove in “Blade Runner,” which was set in 2019. Of course, the machines there got wise and started killing their masters, and so far, no one has predicted that.