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May 09, 2007

2.5 Million Viewers Suddenly Vanish From TV Audience

Where have all the people gone?

In TV's worst spring in recent memory, a startling number of Americans drifted away from television the past two months: More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox than at the same time last year, statistics show.

Everyone has a theory to explain the plummeting ratings: early Daylight Savings Time, more reruns, bad shows, more shows being recorded or downloaded or streamed.

Scariest of all for the networks, however, is the idea that many people are now making their own television schedules. The industry isn't fully equipped to keep track of them, and as a result the networks are scrambling to hold on to the nearly $8.8 billion they collected during last spring's ad-buying season.


The viewer plunge couldn't have come at a worse time for the networks -- next week they will showcase their fall schedules to advertisers in the annual "up front" presentations.


More bad news abounds. NBC set a record last month for its least-watched week during the past 20 years, and maybe ever -- then broke it a week later. This is the least popular season ever for CBS' "Survivor." ABC's "Lost" has lost nearly half its live audience -- more than 10 million people -- from the days it was a sensation. "The Sopranos" (a show that has earned broadcast-network-like ratings in the past) is ending on HBO, and the response is a collective yawn.

Why? Well, it's partly the Internet and/or computer games, which does provide the nightly entertainment for more and more people, it's partly minor cable channels which combined steal a lot of audience from the nets, and it's partly the DVR or TiVo.

I'd like to carp that TV now sucks, but in fact it's never been particularly good, and one can argue that in the past ten years it's had on more decent-to-excellent shows than it's had in a long time. Then again, I always hated M*A*S*H* and Hill Street Blues a bunch of other older shows people swore were great, so maybe I just have contrarian tastes.

Not that I watch much TV now. Well, I watch TV, but it tends to be randomly watching FoxNews or FutureWeapons or Conquest on the History channel. That kind of thing.

There are three everything-old-is-new-again trends going on.

First, as TV was thought to present an existential threat to theatrical movies in the 50s and 60s, now the once-revolutionary upstart is threatened by an even more convenient media.

Second, as more narrowly-focused, idiosyncratic FM ultimately displaced and destroyed the broadly-appealing-but-blandly-programmed AM stations, TV is becoming more fractured. Gone are the days of shows that have truly wide appeal to both sexes and all ages, because while those shows may appeal tepidly to everyone, they don't apeal to anyone strongly enough to actually get them to show up week after week. Women are finally getting a lot of TV shows -- the majority, it seems -- largely or completely tailored to their sensibilities, which is terrific for them, but it's hardly a surprise that men are deserting the vast estrogrenized wasteland of TV.

Third, as fewer and fewer people are watching commercials at all, TV networks are moving towards 50s style single-sponsorship shows, including all the old tricks used in the 50s to move product -- the actors from the show itself delivering a pitch on behalf of the product, the product getting a prominent mention or placement in the show itself. That will hardly be enough to make up for the fact that their are fewer viewers, and far fewer viewers watching commercials, though.

TV will survive, but there will be more and more cheap-to-produce game shows and reality shows, and fewer scripted shows -- only scripted shows that bring in solid ratings will be worth the cost. And amidst a smaller market share, we might see mergers between some networks, and perhaps fewer hours of original prime-time programming.

The Fox network, for example, rolled out with a limited amount of original programming every week -- just a few shows on scattered nights, really -- and left the rest of the schedule open for local affiliates to broadcast re-runs of syndicated sitcoms. (And even now Fox keeps its schedule shorter than the Big Three by leaving the 10-11pm hour for stations to fill with local news or Seinfeld repeats).

That's probably where the nets are heading -- scaling back programming and letting affiliates fill up the rest of the remaining time with Friends re-runs or crap that's currenly only on cable, like Celebrity Fit Club. And maybe with a less ambitious schedule -- only filling ten or twelve hours a week with pricey serials -- they can manage to keep profitable in an increasingly competitive media world.

As Ming the Merciless said, "They'll learn to be content with less."

Via Discarded Lies.

Free Ridin' Isn't Free: While I refuse myself to watch any commercial I don't have to, I realize at some point we hit the Tragedy of the Commons problem in which everyone, making similar decisions for similar reason, basically destroys the sponsorship model TV is predicated upon.

I know avoiding commercials means that there will be fewer TV shows for me to pick from in the future. I know avoiding commercials means that Flava of Love may one day end up being on network TV.

And yet I can't help myself. I'm still not watching commercials.

And I know this will ultimately be a problem for blog advertising, too, as more and more people ad-block ads running on this and other sites.

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posted by Ace at 08:29 PM

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