One of the underlying currents about the “demise” of TV as a medium is about how the networks have not embraced technological advances. Far more often than not, they actively resist them. It’s not an unusual thing to resist change. For a group that is supposed to sway to demographics, the entertainment industry sure does seem to be ignoring larger societal trends.
What do I mean? Let’s start with the hours we keep. When television was taking off, a lot of labor was in the manufacturing sector and this stayed true into the late 1970s. That means set shifts and people starting and ending their day at the same time every day for the most part. Often, these shifts started 6-7 a.m. and ended in the early afternoon. The afternoon newspaper had a large readership among this kind of labor. With its decline, newspapers publishing in the afternoon often switched to the morning, failed or both.
As a species humans remain predominantly diurnal. That doesn’t mean we all finish our work days at 5. The move away from rigid shift work within the middle class means there is flex within the work schedule. This includes both starting early and starting late as well as working longer shifts fewer days per week (four 10 hour shifts, for example). What this means for mass media is that the traditional “prime time” scheduling doesn’t work for a number of people and that number is growing.
This isn’t to say TV as an appliance isn’t as popular. However what is considered a ratings success now compared to 5, 10, 20 and 40 years ago is entirely different in terms of audience share. Where very popular shows in decades past had people scheduling their lives to catch the show, technology has made this unnecessary. VCRs started this trend, DVRs continued it and now on-demand through the Internet has come close to perfecting it. Only events that are best viewed live defy this. The list of the top 10 rated US programs of 2011 back that claim up as Football broadcasts and the Oscars made up 100% of the list. This isn’t the demise of TV. It is likely the demise of the traditional network model.
This has presented a problem in terms of advertising. It used to be networks could sell ads based on knowing a number of people in a specific demographic would be watching at a specific time. That doesn’t work now. People tend to skip advertising on shows they recorded. And there is no telling when a recording may be watched anyway, so advertising for that week’s sale does no good when it is viewed 2-3 weeks after.
As usual, though, technology is both the cause and solution to this problem. It shouldn’t be an issue to inject current advertising into a data stream even if this was something on a DVR, especially if it is a cloud based DVR. It’s no issue over a normal internet stream as countless online content providers have shown. The fact some connected Blu-Ray players can actually do this with trailers proves the point.
The lesson is that no amount of control over media distribution channels is going to get everyone back on the same schedule. It’s crazy to try. Time to change the way viewership is measured. Redefine how to sell advertising. Find out if the programming has enough interest to be viewer supported and not rely on advertising. There are many possible solutions.
The choice is in the hands of content providers. They can adapt to a changing market and remain viable organizations or they can fail (sooner or later). The one thing they are not big enough to do is dictate when we’re available to watch a show.