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TV is moving to the internet faster than you probably think

How fast? As fast as big media companies can move when they face an existential threat.

Say hello to the future cord-cutters of America: Juliana Sanchez, 5, and her brother, Francisco Sanchez Jr., 2, watch children's programming on YouTube on their parent's cellphones at their home.
Gary Reyes / Bay Area News Group / TNS via Getty Images

Since I became the CEO of a publicly traded company, I have yet to take a meeting with Wall Street where some version of this question isn’t asked: “When is traditional TV finally going to move over to connected TV?”

I’m sometimes unsure of what question is really being asked — after all, it’s not hard to track the numbers on streaming, cord cutting, cord shaving and the increasing rate of cord-nevers.

It’s happening. It’s happening now. And it’s happening fast.

After fielding that question so many times and answering differently a number of times, I now think the question is usually coming from a more personal point of view. Everyone loves TV, especially right now. In terms of content quality, television is at the top of its game.

And consumers love Netflix perhaps more than any TV company ever. Sure, people loved their legacy networks more in the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s hard to imagine them being more cherished than Netflix. And Netflix is spending serious money to make such great content. They have to. They can’t get it cheap from the studios anymore. Everyone is on their own. Amazon, CBS, Disney — everyone. And they’re all trying to avoid giving content to YouTube — but that’s a different story.

Even though the content is so great, I think the question — “When is TV moving to the internet?”— also comes from a place of frustration. The number of ads per commercial break has gone up a lot in recent years. And watching TV with ads has become irritating without a DVR. The ad-to-content ratio is high, and ads aren’t personalized like they can be on the web. Viewers wish everything could bypass what the chief product officer at Netflix calls “the tyranny of the grid.” And everyone wants to watch on-demand.

So I think the big question is something more like, “When can everything be on-demand? When will that happen?”

It’s happening much faster than people think. Two of the best content aggregators in media today — Hulu and Spotify — are what I call tea-leaf companies. Watching what they do gives you a glimpse of the future. Of course, Spotify isn’t a TV company, but TV can still learn from it. Hulu and Spotify both offer two types of subscriptions — one with nearly zero ads and another with ads. In both cases, the ad-funded option exposes the consumer to less than half the number of ads that you’ll get in a typical hour of linear or cable TV. In both cases, about 75 percent of consumers are choosing the ad-funded model. Most consumers would rather see ads and pay less.

Keep in mind the current cable set-up costs the average consumer more than $100, plus lots of taxes and fees. These go up every year. The median U.S. household income is about $50,000. So Wall Street and Silicon Valley should remember that most people can’t afford to pay for 15 subscriptions to get rid of ads.

But TV can’t survive without ads. My cable TV costs more than $250 a month and comes with nearly all the channels. Of my 500 stations, however, 490 of them have lots of ads, and none are personalized to me. Very few consumers can afford to get rid of all the ads. And many content providers won’t even offer the option.

Ultimately, TV will come to your house over an Ethernet cable, not a coaxial cable. All TV will be delivered over the internet, because it’s better. Everything will be on-demand, like Netflix. Just like today, most of internet-fueled TV will still be ad-funded. There will be a few no-ad channels, just like Netflix and HBO are today. But most TV content will be ad-funded, and there will be far fewer ads than there are today. The ads will be tailored to you. As consumers, you’ll actually like the ads, because they’ll appeal to you about products you love or products you don’t know about, but will love. These impressions will cost advertisers more per ad. Publishers and TV content creators will get a great cut of every ad dollar. And the global ad business will grow.

The unsustainability of linear television has a happy ending for consumers and the entire TV ecosystem. Some players currently in linear television, especially distributors, will win. Some, of course, will lose.

I’m not the only one who thinks the internet will power everything. Randy Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, has a vision that he has spent more than $100 billion to realize. That’s a “bet the farm” number. Because of this, AT&T has become the biggest tea leaf to watch. And even more so now, with the AT&T and Time Warner deal. This is the biggest media deal in recent years, and most don’t yet understand the gravity of its implications.

Stephenson changed the game last year when he bought Time Warner. He paid more than $80 billion for what may be the most premium content in TV, which includes Turner and HBO. His vision centers around three things: On-demand content, 5G technology (which will change the internet forever) and fully addressable, personally tailored ads.

These three things work together to make it easier to install a new customer. They are making the ultimate move in cable TV — offer everything on-demand and for less. The cheaper bundles will barely be reminiscent of current cable packages because every ad will be tailored to a household, and all content will be on-demand. 5G is mobile. Since Stephenson can get economies of scale, and AT&T controls both the largest satellite TV company and the largest mobile network, he’s hoping to gain market share during the transition. Cheaper and better usually does that.

Every media company in the world, from Comcast to Disney, is losing sleep over this deal. AT&T was the first to make a huge bet, but it will not be the last. 5G will be available by 2020.

Last week, Randy Stephenson hired my friend Brian Lesser, one of the most influential people in digital advertising. The pieces are coming together.

So the answer to the question, “When will TV hit an inflection point?” is: “As fast as big media companies can move when they face an existential threat.” I wouldn’t underestimate how fast people can run when their life is on the line.

TV will be delivered over the internet. And just like everything on the internet, change happens fast.

Jeff Green is the founder and CEO of The Trade Desk, a demand-side platform that powers the desks of the world’s most advanced buyers in online advertising. In 2015, Green and his co-founder Dave Pickles were named Entrepreneurs of the Year in the Greater Los Angeles region by Ernst & Young. Reach him @TheTradeDeskInc.

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