In Television, Nobody Knows Anything

ASPEN--Some of the smartest minds in the discombobulated world of the boob tube crammed into a rounded room at the Aspen Institute today for "Tuning In To The World of Television," a session that did nothing to change the perception that the TV industry has morphed into The World of Upside Down, an long-form serial now available across all platforms free of charge.

The principals on hand for the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference came from all corners of the tubular universe: Joe Marchese, president of advance advertising products at Fox Networks Group; Isaac Lee, chief news and digital officer for Univision Communications; Beatrice Springborn, Hulu's head of originals; and Whalerock Industries president Jeff Berman.

The key questions posited for the new world by Marchese: (1) what are the business models; and (2) what will be the "operating systems" in this world of original long-form programming across dozens of channels and platforms, both paid and advertiser-supported.

"The concern I have is around the economics of this...." Berman said. "The economics don't sustain."

Berman is particularly perturbed, he said, that ESPN has lost ten million subscribers in the last ten years, and that TV watching by 24-year-olds is down by two hours per week.

Even in a world of Netflix and Hulu, of Facebook and Twitter, of AMC and HBO, of legacy Tiffany and Peacock networks, the panelists agreed that storytelling is still the sweetest spot of all--"shared experience" ad man Marchese called it--based on "the stories we ingest."

The problem, according to all of the above, is that the collective experience of a singular mass audiences watching TV shows--paid for by advertisers on a handful of national networks--is as archaic by "Happy Days." The rub is that this familiar, familial historical model has been replaced by chaos, with platforms and devices available by the score without really paying off as a business model.

TV execs can't just talk about Plain Old Television any more--the discussion has moved to "platforms" (network, satellite, cable, paid, free, social) and devices (flat screens, computers, tablets, cell phones). In such a world there will be surprises. Though Berman ("kids.... don't care about the big screen") and Isaac Lee ("the mobile device is where content is going to live") might disagree, Hulu's Springborn ("our average age is 33") insisted that many Hulu subscribers of the younger generation watch on living room devices (AKA flat screens) once they can afford them.

As for those vexing business models, Fox's Marchese could guarantee only that "TV will be a bundle moving forward." (Details will presumably follow said televised revolution.) Ff course, people are now paying for hundreds of cable and satellite channels they could not pick out of a prime-time lineup. Or they are eschewing the bundle in toto and streaming away.

There was talk on the Brainstorm panel about "producing for specific platforms" and the importance of "who are you producing the content for" and "competing for attention" on social media platforms. There was also talk of Netflix releasing entire seasons all at once and Hulu refusing to do same. But never in the history of broadcasting has the picture of television been more out of focus and turbulent as it is today.

"Maybe we are getting to a real world...." Univision's Lee said--meaning a world where consumers and/or advertisers are actually paying for what they want and seeing it wherever they choose. "A good story is a good story and a good program is a good program."

For now, in the new world of television, that will have to be good enough.