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The Tech Industry Is Now Officially Evil. Will TV Avoid Its Fate?

So I binged the final season of Silicon Valley last week and what struck me most was just how much our perception of the tech world has changed, how what was once quirky and cute is now cringey and evil.

What a difference five years makes.

Monetizing tech platforms via advertising, which relies on collecting user data and selling that data to the highest bidder has always been the Valley’s plan of choice. It’s why everything is free and the truth is the proprietors of these platforms never pretended their plan was anything but.

What’s changed is that we finally realized that there are real consequences to letting these companies collect all that data, consequences that began to come to light during the 2016 election.

At which point it suddenly became clear that Silicon Valley had created a system that was incredibly easy for Bad Actors to manipulate.

And that they weren’t really doing a whole lot to try and stop them.

Much of that was due to pure greed, though another part was the utopian vision that initially drove Silicon Valley, the philosophy that said everything in tech was being done for the greater good.

And while I believe that many of the people in the trenches really did believe they were working in service of that utopian vision, I’m not convinced that the people in charge ever believed in it, or if, as I suspect, they always knew exactly what was going on.

Then there’s the tech press, who should have served as a check on the system, but who mostly served as a cheerleading arm/press release regurgitation factory, never really looking behind the curtain to see if their cheerleading in any way resembled the truth. 

Now that the gloss is off, we’re left with a tech industry that’s dented and dirty and decidedly uncool and that’s suddenly the last place many major advertisers want to plant their flags. (Not that they’re abandoning it, mind you. They’re just being decidedly more cautious.)

And that means it’s television’s turn once again.

The 20s will witness the full on Flixcopalypse, the unleashing of eight multibillion dollar streaming services with far more programming than anyone could remotely hope to watch.

My gut says that this is the future, that the various cable and phone companies who have no loyalty to any specific video service other than the ones they own, will begin offering bundles made up of the various Flixes rather than hundreds of cable and broadcast networks and that this will become the 2020s form of pay TV and that eventually all of the broadcast and cable networks will move their linear feeds to OTT apps, either their own or someone else’s, and the change to a new/old style of pay TV will be complete.

A large portion of this new pay TV ecosystem will be ad supported, and it will attempt to improve upon current ad models by using the same sort of deep user data that got the Valley denizens into so much trouble.

And so the question is, will TV be able to learn from the Valley’s mistakes?

I’m thinking the answer is largely “yes”, mostly because the TV companies start with two sizable advantages: (a) they know what those mistakes are, and (b) most people aren’t all that bothered by the fact that someone knows what shows they like watching on TV.

Tracking their banking, shopping and porn habits?  That seems kind of creepy.

But the fact that they like Black Mirror, Blackish and the Chicago Black Hawks? 

Not so much.

Or as several people confided, in the course of writing our recent Special Reports, “If they know I’m watching it, maybe they won’t cancel it.”

Which still doesn’t mean the television industry is out of the clear.

To begin with, everyone collecting data from TV viewers needs to be upfront about how and where they are collecting it from, right down to acknowledging that they’re working with companies that track credit card data in order to learn which viewers bought something as a result of being exposed to an ad.

(People are going to find this creepy AF, because even though Experian et al have been doing this forever, the fact that they exist at all, and that what they do is perfectly legal, still seems to take non-media industry people by surprise.)

It’s also going to mean that pricing and pricing plans for all these new platforms are clear and above board and that cable companies stop doing that thing they do where they lock people into two years contracts they can’t get out of, and leave them on phone chains for hours when they try to get out of them anyway.

It’s also going to mean being upfront about the price of broadband once 5G finally becomes a thing (figure 2025 or so) and there’s real competition for your internet connection. 

The industry will also have to work at preventing TV from turning into a two-tier system, with ad-free or ad-light shows that dominate award season for the upper classes, the top 15% on the coasts, and ad-heavy, low production value programming and reruns for everyone else.

Mostly though, it’s going to be about honesty, that thing the Valley calls “transparency” (even when they’re being anything but transparent.)

Hopefully the television industry will heed the call.