Why live TV will be completely irrelevant in the future

Friends Jennifer Aniston Matt LeBlanc Courtney CoxGetty ImagesAll 236 episodes of ‘Friends’ are available to watch on Netflix.

How does whatever show that’s on tonight, tomorrow night, or next week, compete with every single movie and TV show ever created, available to watch wherever and whenever you want?

That was the question that Rich Greenfield, a prominent media analyst at BTIG Research in New York, posed to me recently. I had called him up to interview him for a story I was reporting on the future of TV.

“One word. Netflix,” Greenfield said when I asked about what the future of TV looked like.

But, I countered: Netflix doesn’t offer live programming, and it doesn’t seem like it will, at least in the next few years.

Live TV, Greenfield told me, “is falling in importance every day.”

With Netflix and Hulu, as well as new standalone internet streaming services from HBO, Showtime, Nickelodeon, and CBS, there are more ways than ever to watch “TV” without actually subscribing to bundle of channels from a cable, satellite, or telephone company. There’s even a new subscription streaming service for horror movies — it’s appropriately called Shudder — that came out this month.

“Watching ‘Friends’ on Netflix or watching ‘Sopranos’ on HBO Now or going back and watching ‘Weeds’ on Showtime… those shows are probably better than the vast majority of what’s live this evening,” Greenfield said. “And when you can watch all of that content without advertising, episode after episode in a very cinematic fashion, I’d kind of dispute your premise that live is important.”

Watching live sports, of course, will still be very important for some people, he conceded, and big events like the World Cup, Super Bowl, and March Madness, as well as event programming like the premiere of the new season of “Game of Thrones” will continue to draw huge viewership. But with everything ever created available for us to watch anytime, the portion of what needs to be watched live versus what doesn’t falls more and more all of the time, he said.

Womens world cup victoryAnne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY SportsThe US victory over Japan in the finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this month was the most-watched soccer game in US history.

“Whether you watch ‘Naked and Afraid’ on Discovery tonight or in a year, does it matter?” Greenfield asked. “The vast, vast majority of the content created every single day doesn’t need to be watched live.”

The challenge for cable and satellite companies is going to be to hold on to TV subscribers as an increasing number of these standalone options become available. Sling TV, which offers live TV streamed on the internet for $US20 per month, came out earlier this year, and Apple is rumoured to be working on a streaming TV service that could potentially shift the entire landscape.

Pay TV companies like Comcast and Verizon are already offering smaller packs of channels and more flexible options to try to lure new subscribers.

But there’s still no better way to watch sports than paying for a TV subscription, though some people have resorted to old-fashioned antennas to get their fix.

“I think the future of television is increasingly on demand,” Greenfield said. “It is increasingly ad-free or ad light, with sports being the one piece, the only kind of real glue holding the bundle together. The central question for the entire media TV ecosystem is what percentage of people abs have to have sports? And is an antenna to get football enough?”

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