The Flawed Logic Behind the Internet Time Slot

· Joanthan Poritsky

Now that the dust has finally settled on NBC’s “Tonight Show” debacle, with Jay Leno returning as host of the program, speculators can’t help but predict a landing place for the now jobless Conan O’Brien. It’s assumed that he’ll go to Fox, the only network without a late night talk show currently. However, over at the New York Times’ Bits Blog, writer Nick Bilton has a different, more ethereal outlet for the ginger haired comic: The Internet!

“So here’s my advice to Mr. O’Brien:” Mr. Bilton offers up, “After he leaves NBC and spends a few months healing his wounds and pulling the troops back together, he should come back and make the Internet his time slot.” The rest of the piece doesn’t say all that much about how to achieve such an end, but does revolve around buzzwords like “Leno!” “Conan!” and “Internet!” proving that even the New York Times isn’t above link-baiting. But there is a story to pull from Bilton’s piece: that the logic behind his Internet Time Slot reflects the outdated viewpoint of the web that still runs rampant among popular thought.

See, it turns out that with the advent of DVR and online clip viewing, younger viewers aren’t tuning in for live television anymore. Bilton references a piece by New York Times snarker David Carr whose title says it all: “It’s not Jay or Conan, It’s Us”. That piece blames late night television’s failing numbers on the wild success of the Internet: “Bedtime used to mean some quality time with your late-night host of choice, but the bedroom has gotten pretty crowded. The nightstand is groaning with options, including Netflix, laptops and a remote that can pull up favored prime-time programs on the DVR. Let me see, that episode of ‘House’ I missed or Conan O’Brien?” He has a point, but what keeps on getting lost in this conversation is some understanding of what the Internet actually is, or could be.

For too long, the Internet has been perceived as a magic box with the potential for wild success that eats media industries for breakfast. That’s where the idea of an Internet Time Slot stems from. See, once Conan O’Brien became embroiled in the whole late night war, not only did his terrestrial television ratings go up, but his Internet footprint went sky-high. Twitter and Facebook campaigns were started overnight with millions pulling for him, a phenomenon that barely happened for his stodgier counterpart, Jay Leno. It is not lost on anyone that this audience, mostly younger, is the lucrative future viewership of the “The Tonight Show” if there is one. So Bilton drew an obvious conclusion. If Conan is huge in the Internet, maybe he should live there. Problem: the Internet isn’t Japan; you can’t live there.

The Internet is a content delivery network, plain and simple. Do you think anyone cared when cable turned digital and started carrying data alongside video into their homes? No, because they got the content they wanted in however many rooms they needed it. Eventually, the Internet will deliver the content to viewers on television sets, perhaps completely on demand. As long as the interface, a big screen with pretty pictures and a reasonably easy to use pointing device, doesn’t change, the viewers won’t care how the content gets there. The real trouble for media moguls is figuring out how to bend to viewing trends since they have built an ecosystem that hasn’t changed much in 60 or 30 years, depending if you’re a network or a cable station. Just look at this tooth and nail debate between Boxee CEO Avner Ronen and vociferous HDNet Chairman Mark Cuban from last March. They’re fighting for their lives.

So that explains the Internet, but what about a time slot? The conversation over at the Times revolves around on demand content, but they forget that when you put that content there matters. The time slot won’t go away. Take a popular show like “Lost”. People watch it when it airs and on and on Hulu because they like it. If the final season of “Lost” were to only air on the internet at 9pm and then be available for streaming immediately thereafter, you could be damn sure it would find an audience to watch it at exactly 9pm. That’s what addictive content does. It brings an audience to it, not the other way around. The thing is, when you head down this path, this Internet thing starts to look a lot like Television, which is why it’s a pointless conversation.

The Internet has eaten whole industries before, so it’s fair enough that media moguls should be wary. However, they shouldn’t cling to the old models that don’t allow for growth with the latest and greatest tech. When they do, someone else beats them to the punch and then they’re really up to their neck in it. Just go look at how conveniently (and snarkily) laid out the best clips of the late night wars are set up over at Gawker.TV to see how television networks are losing the battle. I guarantee you if the networks offered an alternative the site’s ham-job encoding of Live TV, Gawker would jump on and embed the network branded (and probably ad-bumped) clips. But remember, they’re missing the boat, and thinking that audience tendencies are wrong basically leaves them without a paddle. Here’s to figuring it out.