This week, when they ring the bell on the television upfronts, the annual orgy of advertising buying, I hope the industry isn’t counting on my house to lift ratings.
So far in the month of May, our household has watched exactly two minutes and one second of live television. NBC’s broadcast of “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” as the Kentucky Derby is described, was epic, unfurling on the big flat panel we finally bought. But I doubt our spasm of live viewing is enough to keep the television business in business.
And it wasn’t an anomaly. In April, our sum total of live viewing — the building block of the upfront — came during CBS’s broadcast of the Masters. Even then, I was more riveted by the iPad app in my lap, selecting players and holes to follow.
It’s an apt metaphor. When it comes to the traditional screen that families gather around, live television is competing against a growing array of self-selected content. Given the amount of high-quality shows idling in my DVR and on-demand queue, channel surfing for live television seems very last century. And our television is Web-enabled, so a vast treasure of other goodies awaits from Netflix, Hulu Plus and Apple TV.
(Our house is part of a rapidly growing trend: online viewing is up more than 46 percent in just the last year, according to the media buying firm Horizon Media. And as my colleague Bill Carter noted, live ratings for network programs have declined for 14 consecutive quarters, with audiences bolting in record numbers this spring.)
Outside of the professional football season or some breaking national news event, the television at our house has become uncoupled from the commercial-driven environment that drives the broadcast and cable business. We haven’t cut the cord so much as kinked it in a way that commercials rarely sneak through.
I continue to be a fan of (some) network television products; I just don’t consume them as they’re broadcast.
I’m part of the cult of “Community,” but I motor through several episodes on Hulu Plus when I am feeling the need to spend some quality time with Abed. I’m a frantic fan of “Modern Family,” but this season, fresh episodes were broadcast so sporadically that I just set the DVR to harvest the new ones. And sure, I like to get tucked in by Stephen Colbert, but I don’t go to bed until 1 a.m., so I make sure he is waiting for me in the virtual video library controlled by the remote on my night stand.
There used to be some intellectual cachet in sniffing that you didn’t watch television, but that time is past. Both premium and basic cable churn out so many remarkable goodies that can be recorded or consumed on demand — “Archer,” “Girls,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Killing” and “Louie,” to name just a few — that it feels like a sucker’s game just to settle for sponsor-infested spoon-feeding. Then again, if the business model producing some of that yummy programming dries up, the shows might go away as well.
For half a century, signals came over the public airwaves, and we gathered around the glowing appliance in groups at preordained times. Cable created a second wave of choice and split the model into paid and unpaid streams.
Now, DVR penetration will approach 50 percent of American homes next year, while half of American homes already have video on demand. With the Web offering alternatives as well, the programming controls have been reversed: we watch what we want, when we want to watch, and by the way, we aren’t going to watch much in the way of commercials.
My house is hardly the bleeding edge: Nielsen estimates that there will be 350 million Web-enabled television devices sold worldwide in 2015.
And it isn’t just the early adopters that legacy television has to be concerned about: there is a whole cohort of consumers on the way who are nonadopters of television as we have historically conceived it. My 15-year-old has a television in her room, but it’s not even on the cable-broadcast grid; it is wired instead to a Web-enabled Wii. Like the laptop and smartphone that she never seems to be without, the television is just one more Web-enabled portal for content she controls.
(Page 2 of 2)
Other significant trends are under way. As the workplace has followed people home through a variety of devices that keep them virtually tethered to their desks, appointment viewing has given way to setting up the next day’s appointments. And social media, Web news and e-mail seem far more urgent than an amusing show in the 9 p.m. slot.
Even so-called event programming like “American Idol” is losing steam — that show’s ratings are down 30 percent — in part because of overexposure and in part because people are less patient with the formula of a cliffhanger interrupted by a thicket of commercials. Save the drumroll; I’ll watch a clip of the winner in the morning.
But the upfronts nevertheless continue to rumble along. According to estimates reported by Reuters, in the coming week the big four broadcast networks and the CW will book some $9 billion in advertising revenue, with the big four up 2 to 4 percent from last year. And cable networks, which surpassed broadcasters for the first time last year in total advertising booked during the upfronts, are expecting a payday of more than $9.6 billion, an increase of 4 to 6 percent.
Part of what keeps legacy television in the game is that it is the last refuge of mass and reach. For retailers who want to flag a sale or an entertainment company with a weekend movie opening, a commercial on a broadcast network or a highly rated cable station can still hammer a message into a lot of noggins. In this targeted age, it’s breathtakingly inefficient — you pay to reach everyone, even the millions not in the desired age group — but making a big television buy is a kind of comfort food, easy and familiar.
Yet by losing audience, networks and cable stations have been able to force advertisers to buy more commercials to reach the number of viewers that they want.
“They have an interesting business model predicated on losing viewers,” observed Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media. “It can’t last forever.”
At some point, the laws of both gravity and economics will begin to pull down the upfronts, and with them, the fundamentals of the television business. Jeff Gaspin, who used to head entertainment at NBC, told Bill Carter that he and his son recently decided to catch up on a particular series and so assembled episodes from a variety of sources — iTunes, Netflix and the DVR. They saw all the past episodes in time to watch the final one live on AMC but found that commercials interrupted their experience.
So what show demonstrated to the former television executive that the old way of watching television was losing relevance?
“The Walking Dead.”