Much of this is misguided. People spend more time watching television now than they did when rappers attacked it with songs. As a thorough study by the Council for Research Excellence has shown, Americans spend more time watching television than they spend surfing the web, sending e-mails, watching DVDs, playing computer games, reading newspapers and talking on mobile phones put together. Television is not disappearing. But nor is it the only star in the sky.
The internet, both fixed and mobile, poses a growing challenge to television. It lures advertisers with promises of precision: why pay huge sums to scatter a message among millions of people when you can target the few who seem to be interested in your product? To consumers it promises choice, engagement and a low (or no) price. And the internet has powerful backers. Despite all that hand-wringing over the dangers of technology, governments from South Korea to Sweden seem to regard universal fast broadband as a human right, to be paid for out of general taxation. With the important exception of sport, early attempts to deliver TV content over the web and mobile phones have proved unprofitable. The worst mistakes are now being put right. But it is doubtful that the economics of online or mobile video will ever be as attractive as the economics of traditional television. As video goes online, a world of restricted choice and limited advertising space turns into one where both are available in almost endless quantities. More supply means lower prices.
Technology also competes for attention. Although families still gather around the TV set as they have done for decades, they now bring electronic distractions with them. Nielsen reckons that 13% of people who watched the Academy Awards ceremony this year went online during the programme, up from 9% last year. The multitaskers did not appear to gravitate to entertainment websites. Google and Facebook topped the list of websites visited during the Oscars, just as they did during the Super Bowl and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
In Japan and South Korea, where many technological trends originate, young people may well type a text message and watch television on their mobile phone even as the main TV set flickers in the background. In Britain teenagers have learned to bounce from platform to platform and from children’s to adult programmes, snacking on a wide range of content. “They have become adept at lightning raids,” says Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general. Although teenagers watch a lot of television it has become hard to make programmes specifically for them.
For the biggest TV shows, technology is a boon. Social-networking websites create chatter around reality-TV programmes, increasing awareness and drawing viewers. Television executives have long endeavoured to create “water-cooler” shows which people will talk about at work the next day. Chris Silbermann, president of International Creative Management, a talent agency, says Facebook and Twitter function a bit like large digital water coolers. As audiences fragment, the big shows’ ability to draw huge numbers of eyeballs at a specific time becomes ever more valuable to advertisers.
For shows of middling popularity, including many scripted dramas and comedies, life is harder. Big shows are crowding out smaller ones, partly because of the amplifying effects of social media and partly because of the spread of digital video recorders, which make it easy to watch nothing but hits. Online video nibbles at their audience, too. How to survive in this world of giant competitors and new distractions?
One answer is to involve viewers more in programmes. Television is extremely good at creating characters and gripping stories. It is much less good at encouraging people to engage with those stories. Simon Cowell (pictured above) has proved that people will vote for contestants in talent shows. But some attempts to open a dialogue with viewers have been a little odd. In May 2009 Britain’s Channel 4 aired “Surgery Live”, which sought to involve Facebook and Twitter users in a real-life operation.
So far the most impressive efforts in this direction have been made by TV news outlets. Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-owned broadcaster, has “Minbar Al-Jazeera”, a regular forum for discussion and complaint. CNN has thoroughly integrated social media into its shows, frequently passing e-mailed comments to pundits. It also encourages people to help create stories by uploading pictures and video to its iReport website. This comes into its own after natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake in January, when journalists cannot get to the scene. To protect its brand, CNN distinguishes between pictures and footage that it has vetted as genuine and those it has not.
Involving viewers in this way is crucial for CNN, which lacks the ideological rapport that its two main American rivals, the conservative Fox News Channel and the liberal MSNBC, have with their viewers. But it is desirable for any news outfit. In a country where even subway systems have Facebook pages, news networks must fight to hold onto people’s attention. And ordinary folk want to interact with news. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 25% of American internet users had commented on online news stories or blogs and 48% had e-mailed links to such stories to others. A surprising 9% had contributed stories or videos to news sites.
Glenn Beck, one of the stars of the Fox News Channel, is a multimedia brand to rival anything concocted by Disney or MTV. As well as a popular TV show, he puts out a radio programme and bestselling books. He tours and releases CDs. His logo appears on T-shirts, baseball caps and, oddly, duct tape. Mr Beck also has an online fan club, which charges admission (one of the promised benefits is a priority e-mail form to send messages to the man himself). No wonder Mr Beck sometimes seems to be running the Republican Party.
Fickle ads, steady subs
Whether for channels, shows or conservative presenters, subscriptions will become ever more important to television. Advertising will continue to flow to the biggest shows, especially sport, but it cannot be guaranteed anywhere else. As the past two years have shown, advertising can plunge suddenly. The recession of 2008-09 cut Spanish advertising revenues by more than a third, according to some estimates, setting off a round of mergers and acquisitions. By contrast, few people cancelled their pay-TV subscriptions. Media firms that derive most of their income from monthly bills are more stable and can concentrate on pleasing their audiences rather than schmoozing cosmetics firms.
Yet advertising could be improved, too. Television has always been unusual in deriving so much of its revenue from something that annoys its customers. It could target (or, as TV folk prefer, “address”) advertisements much more precisely. After all, cable and satellite firms know something that even Google does not: where their customers live. Addressable advertising has loitered on the horizon for years, but seems to be advancing at last.
BSkyB is already tailoring some advertisements on Sky Player, its online video-streaming service. Next year it will roll out the system to TV sets. Appropriate ads will be downloaded to set-top boxes and inserted into programmes. If this works, it will make a huge difference to television. It should enable, say, a car company not only to reach millions of people in a single evening but also to deliver an advertisement that is exactly right for each of them. Young couples in high-rise flats would see ads for small runabouts, suburbanites would be encouraged to buy minivans.
Television is supreme at holding the attention of a large number of people for long periods. Other gadgets divert people from the box, but not nearly as much as TV diverts them from all those other gadgets. And technology has undermined some of television’s biggest competitors, notably newspapers. In a world of fragmenting audiences it is the only real global mass medium. If TV can combine scale with specificity, become more responsive to its audience and learn to aim adverts more precisely, it will continue to thrive.