American television: Switching channels

ONE of the most popular television shows in America this autumn is called “How to Get Away with Murder”, about a law professor and her students, who become involved in a mysterious killing. Most cable subscribers will find the title an appropriate description of their viewing experience. Couch potatoes are forced to spend around $90 a month for their subscription. They receive over 160 channels, most of which they skip straight past. By one estimate the cost of a cable subscription has more than doubled since 2000. All that for the privilege of doing business with companies that consistently rank in the lower regions of customer-satisfaction surveys.

This month the plot took a twist. HBO, a premium cable channel, announced that, starting next year, it would offer its programming, previously only available through pay-television distributors, as a stand-alone product delivered to anyone with an internet connection. CBS, a broadcast network, recently launched a similar service. There are other signs that a “lighter” bundle may be available soon. Earlier this year DISH, a satellite provider, won the rights to sell Disney’s content, including ESPN, a sports channel, as part of an internet-delivered television service, and Sony may launch something like it by the end of the year.

Viewers have long wanted to pay only for the channels they watch, not the bundle that cable companies foist upon them. Television executives have resisted, rightly fearing that doing away with the bundle could tear apart a business with annual revenues of around $150 billion. Unlike newspapers and the music industry, which saw their businesses sink with the rise of the internet, change has come gradually. So far the TV industry has been a story of powerful and rich characters intent on keeping things just as they are.

Television networks make money from advertisements and the fees paid by television operators to carry them. Up to now, they have mostly refused to make their current shows available on the internet to anyone but their subscribers. Like prisoners in a jail cell, network-owners and pay-television distributors made a pact not to sell each other out, and worked to preserve a business that has been extremely lucrative for all of them. They have turned Netflix and Amazon into some of their biggest “customers”, selling old shows that would scarcely make them another penny and keeping back their newest content and sports. This has ensured that no online firm could become a perfect replacement.

Meanwhile, pay-television operators, which charge viewers monthly subscription fees, have tried to keep customers by giving them new services, including the ability to watch current television shows online wherever they are as long as they subscribe and to watch videos “on demand”, just as they can on services such as Netflix. In other words, television companies have become more like their disrupters. Those who want to watch up-to-date programmes, including live sports, without hassle have had to cough up.

The announcements by HBO and CBS have prompted dramatic predictions about the end of the television business in its current form. Television executives already share horror stories about how their children have asked them what a “channel” is. One has begun saying that he considers “streaming” the same as “television”, no matter on what sort of screen it takes place. Advertisers and analysts have started to use the word “video” instead of “television”, because they consider online video an increasingly important part of their ad spending.

The doomsaying may be premature. Viewing habits have changed, especially among the young, who watch more online video and time-shifted television, and often prefer to stare at a tablet than at a TV. But Americans continue to watch a remarkable amount of TV the old-fashioned way: around four-and-a-half hours a day, on average. The new stand-alone online offerings will appeal to some consumers, but are unlikely to cause the television business to crack quickly. Consumers who want to cobble together different subscriptions from HBO, Netflix and others may find it is not that much cheaper after paying for broadband.

Only around 7m homes in America forgo pay-television in favour of an internet-delivered option, compared to 100m that subscribe to it, according to SNL Kagan, a research firm. Many younger people will never shell out for traditional pay-television but advertisers have few alternatives to reach big audiences besides television, so for now have stuck with the medium in spite of flagging ratings. That should give TV bosses a bit of comfort for the upcoming season but they would do well not to lose sight of the wider narrative arc.

Schumpeter: A guide to skiving

THE best way to understand a system is to look at it from the point of view of people who want to subvert it. Sensible bosses try to view their companies through the eyes of corporate raiders. Serious-minded politicians make a point of putting themselves in their opponents’ shoes. The same is true of the world of work in general: the best way to understand a company’s “human resources” is not to consult the department that bears that ugly name but to study the basic principles of one of the world’s most popular, if unrecognised, sciences: skiving.

The first principle of skiving (or shirking, as Americans call it) is always to appear hard at work. This is the ancient jacket-on-the-back-of-the-chair trick: leave a coat permanently on display so that a casual observer—a CEO practising “managing by walking around”, for example—will assume that you are the first to arrive and the last to leave. The skill of skiving is subtle: ensure you are somewhere else when the work is being allocated. Successful skivers never visibly shy away from work: confronted with the inevitable they make a point of looking extremely eager. This “theatre of enthusiasm” has fooled almost everyone. Policymakers bemoan the epidemic of overwork. But as Roland Paulsen, of Sweden’s Lund University, explains in “Empty Labour”, an example-packed new book, innumerable studies suggest that the average worker devotes between one-and-a-half and three hours a day to loafing.

The second principle is that information technology is both the slacker’s best friend and his deadliest enemy. The PC is custom-made for the indolent: you can give every impression of being hard at work when in fact you are doing your shopping, booking a holiday or otherwise frolicking in the cyber-waves. And thanks to mobile technology you can now continue to frolic while putting in face time in meetings. There is also a high-tech version of the jacket trick: program your e-mails to send themselves at half past midnight or 5.30am to give your managers the impression that you are a Stakhanovite.

But there is a dark side to IT: one estimate suggests that 27m employees around the world have their internet use monitored. Dealing with this threat requires vigilance: do everything you can to hide your browsing history. It may also require something that does not come naturally to skivers: political activism. Make a huge fuss about how even the smallest concessions on the principle of absolute data privacy will create a slippery slope to a totalitarian society. Skiving is like liberty: it can flourish only if Big Brother is kept at bay.

The third principle is that you should always try to get a job where there is no clear relation between input and output. The public sector is obviously a skiver’s paradise. In 2004 it took two days for anyone to notice that a Finnish tax inspector had died at his desk. In 2009 the Swedish Civil Aviation Administration discovered that some of its employees had spent three-quarters of their working hours watching internet pornography. In 2012 a German civil servant wrote a farewell message to his colleagues, on his retirement, confessing that he hadn’t done a stroke of work for the past 14 years. And even if managers can find people who are failing on the “input” side it is almost impossible to sack them.

Big private-sector organisations can be almost as fertile skiving grounds as public ones. In “The Living Dead” (2005), his memoir of life as an office worker, David Bolchover says that the amount of work he had to do was inversely related to the size of the company that he worked for. He started his career in a small firm where he had to work hard for no title and low pay. He ended working for a big company where he had a grand title and a fat pay packet but did almost nothing. Mr Bolchover was not a member of the brotherhood: he asked his bosses for more work and, when they failed to oblige, filled his idle hours by writing a management book. But millions of others are perfectly happy to devote their lives to firm-financed leisure.

Hitherto skivers have focused on old-line companies where ageing managers can be bamboozled with the claim that it is quite impossible to build an Excel spreadsheet in anything less than two weeks. But the clever ones are exploring the rich opportunities provided by the new economy. The likes of Google and Facebook make a great fuss about installing the adult equivalent of children’s playgrounds—everything from massage rooms to sleep pods and pinball machines—to provide their employees with an opportunity for relaxation between intense bursts of toil. But now that these companies are becoming bloated monopolists there is a perfect opportunity for canny skivers to take advantage of the nap pods without bothering with the frantic work. New-economy companies have even provided a handy way to discover if they are ripe for exploitation: if employees have titles such as “director of visioning” or “vice-chairman of big-data analytics” then you know that it is time to start geekifying your CV.

Cyber-loafing your way to the top

The final principle of skiving is that you should not allow your preference for leisure to limit your ambition. Too many skivers are still bewitched by the old myth that there is a connection between effort and reward. There are inevitably few quantitative studies of skiving. But the ones that exist suggest it is most prevalent at the very top and bottom of the pay scale. A Finnish study in 2010 found that the people who reported the most “empty labour” earned more than €80,000 ($112,000) a year while the runners-up earned less than €20,000. It can be hard to begin your climb up the greasy pole without making some effort: the trick is to be brimming over with clever ideas for other people to execute. But when you become a manager your problems are solved: you can simply delegate all your work to other people while you spend your days attending international conferences or “cultivating relationships with investors”.

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