I know I'm on record as being something of a Mark Cuban fan, but this time he's just got it wrong. He picks a fight with George "The End of Television" Gilder, which isn't hard. But although he starts off well, citing Aaron Spelling's aphorism that “TV is the path of least resistance from complete boredom”, the logic quickly goes off the rails:
George and others seem to think that unlimited choice is the holy grail of TV. It's not.
The reason it's not is that it's too much work to page through an unlimited number of options. It's too much work to have to think of what it is we might like to watch. We are afraid we might miss something that we really did want to watch. Put another way, it's way too hard to shop for shows in a store where the aisles are endless. It's stressful and a lot of work. Which is exactly why when we channel surf, or when we surf the net, we all end up surfing the same 10, 15 , 20 channels/sites over and over again. It's the path of least resistance.
Right there you see the problem. This is what people said about the Internet--"there's too much there; it's too hard to find what I want"--back in the days before Google. Today we don't "page through an unlimited number of options" anymore. We either search and let the software rank results in order or relevance, usually showing us what we want in the first page, or we let recommendations suggest stuff we'd like, as in the case of iTunes and Amazon. Indeed, Cuban mentions how much he loves shopping at iTunes and Amazon for just this reason. Surely successful Internet TV will work the same way?
Well, yes, says Cuban:
When we get to a point that there are thousands of on-demand TV choices, we won't approach TV programming guides like we do a search engine, looking for a specific target. That's too much work. The smart on-demand providers will present their programming guides more like Amazon.com or Netflix.com. Both of which do a great job of “suggestive programming”.
We will get a personalized page with options that it thinks we might like based on our previous viewing decisions. Then different categories of shows, within each we will see best rated, most viewed and newest added, along with “play lists” suggested by branded guides who make recommendations. All of these simple options will make it easy for us to make a choice with some level of confidence. We won't feel like we are missing something and we will know that if we don't like the show, we can quickly go back to a point that makes it easy to find another selection.
Sounds good. So what's the problem? Recall that Gilder is not predicting the end of video programming, he's predicting the end of TV as we know it, which is to say broadcast TV. That's a finite number of channels trying to find content that can aggregate audiences big enough to make shotgun economics work.
TV, on the other hand, is just like iTunes and Netflix--an
infinite number of individual content elements that are custom packaged
or presented based on our interests, whether explicitly expressed
through search or implicitly through our viewing habits or personal
profile. It's the death of channels, not the death of video programming. Gilder
happens to define "TV" as traditional broadcast TV (interrupted by
ads), and Internet TV as something else. Far from dismissing it, he
thinks that something else has a glorious future, pretty much along the
lines that Cuban himself describes once he gets past his inexplicable
scorn for infinite choice.
In short, Cuban's right that in a world of
massive TV variety, we'll need smart, personalized recommendations and
"suggestive programming" to make entertainment easy. But he's wrong to
suggest that's in any way incompatible with Gilder's model of infinite
What Gilder is criticizing is the
lowest-common-denominator model required by the economics of broadcast TV,
where a limited number of channels have to aggregate the biggest
audiences they can. Cuban seems to think that Gilder's alternative
model is Google, where you have to know what you want and then search for
it. But that isn't what Gilder's saying at all. He's agnostic about how
people find what they like in a massive market of abundant choice. It
could be smart program guides or personalized filters. His point is
that, regardless of how people find it, they'll be more satisfied with
what they eventually get in this world of plenty than they are now in
the pre-filtered world of scarcity.
I think Cuban and Gilder actually agree. Infinite choice doesn't have to mean the tyranny of choice. More really can be better. And one way or another, the traditional broadcast model is going to be replaced.