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Will Linear Broadcast Be Dead in 2 Years?

Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings has infamously (and possibly even repeatedly) made the claim that linear broadcast will be dead in the water within two years. How does a panel of media industry streaming experts respond to that claim? Rob Dillon, Head of Digital Product, Straight Arrow News, Eric Bergner, Partner, Manatt Digital and Technology Transactions, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, Michael Nagle, GM of Streaming, Gannett/USA Today, Johan Bolin, Chief Business Officer, Media & Broadcast, Agile Content, and Corey Smith, Senior Director, Advanced Production Technology, CBS Sports Digital, Paramount, debate Hastings' controversial claim in this clip from their Streaming Media Connect 2023 panel.

Dillon says, “I saw [Hastings] say it a few years ago, and it made the news cycle again a couple of weeks ago. Does anybody think linear is going away anytime soon?”

Bergner replies, “I guess the thinking behind that is that the Walter Cronkite generation, where America sat and watched the same network to get their news from a single source, is dying off.” However, he emphasizes he does not think that means linear broadcast is unadaptable and verging on extinction. “I disagree with that statement because there's a new generation that's more tech-savvy, that wants customization and wants to find their specific people. They can share a viewing experience on a digitally driven linear platform. These channels can be hyper-specialized, have a target audience, and the cost is cheap. If you have a library, these are ad revenue splits or inventory split deals. The barrier to entry for a content owner and the distributor is very low, and these aren't going anywhere. I see them multiply.”

Nagle comments on the hyperbolic nature of Hastings’ statement and argues that there is much more nuance to the present linear broadcast streaming situation. “He's a hell of a lot smarter than me, but I think it's the fifth anniversary of that prediction that he's made over the last five to 10 years,” Nagle says. “I think what's more likely to happen is linear going to disappear in the next two years, or is Netflix going to launch a fast platform in the next two years? So I don't think it's going anywhere. We've all had that occasion where we're sitting on the sofa on a Sunday night navigating through JPEGs, and in the morning, you probably find the skeletal remains of many people who navigated through those JPEGs and never found anything to watch. That's not a lean-back experience. I don't think linear is going anywhere, our respect to Mr. Hastings.”

Bolin argues that “linear” is not a cut-and-dry term, as it can mean many things. He agrees that the model of a singular broadcast consumed by most viewers is ending but that linear should now be viewed more multifacetedly. “We need to start to see linear as a presentation format more than a curation format,” he says. “And if you use linear as a presentation format, but you use more personalized curation behind that, I think there's room for linear, even though percentage-wise, I think it will go down. But there are occasions and situations where you want to have that kind of experience [and] linear is a good way to present it. But I think maybe when Reed Hastings [says] those statements, he refers more to the traditional kind of linear you see on today's traditional broadcast distribution platforms more than the experience.”

Corey Smith also agrees that linear will not just vanish and that the process will be slow since consumers, in general, can be slower to adapt to new technologies. “I think it's going to take an entire generation for both over-the-air (OTA) and linear to go away because you have a lot of people out there that are not tech savvy and don't care to be, and you have to continue to keep that audience as long as you possibly can,” he says. “So the idea we're going to flip the light switch and it's all going to get turned off one day is naïve. [I don’t think] that linear is going to die anytime in the next decade. I truly feel like the people who want to go towards the digital platforms go to streaming because that's where they want to consume their media. That's going to continue to grow as a market. The erosion of traditional [broadcast] will continue, but it's going to take a long time for it to kind of die off.”

Smith says that new forms of dynamic interactivity will also inevitably change the way media is consumed and further erode traditional linear broadcasting. “We've had over a decade of experimentation on second screen experiences,” he says. “We tried to do it at Xbox. Amazon's tried to do it. Even Blu-ray discs were trying to do a kind of second-screen experience where you could review actors and stuff like that on your screen while you're watching the main movie presentation. I think it was a good successful experiment to figure out the user behaviors, and now we're trying to put some of that science into play as we curate the digital universe.”

Learn more about a wide range of streaming industry topics at the next Streaming Media Connect in November 2023.

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