How we watch television keeps changing. It’s not only that people are recording shows for viewing later. It’s that they can call up the shows from on-demand channels, or watch them on their laptops, phones or tablets. Even today’s Super Bowl will be available as live, streaming video to computers and selected phones.
And our viewing opportunity does not end there. Beyond the shows that have broadcast or cable bases, there is the array of created-for-online video, from big-name productions like the sketches on the Funny Or Die website to the bazillions of cat videos on YouTube.
When I might have been watching one of the hundreds of TV channels I get on cable, I have at times turned to the Internet instead, seeking a live feed from a University of Akron soccer game; even when the video was crude and the audio nonexistent, it was something I wanted to see and was not going to get from a traditional TV service. More often, like many people, my wife and I have sat in front of a program on our big-screen TV set while watching other things on our respective laptops.
Nielsen studies include not only who’s watching what, but also in what form and combinations; for example, more than 70 percent of women using tablets like the iPad will check their email on the tablet while watching a TV show. The 30 million people watching mobile video on a smart phone are most likely to watch YouTube, Nielsen estimates.
The situation recalls the days when cable was on the rise and a broadcast executive likened it to being nibbled to death by sharks. No one alternative might have drawn a big audience, but the cumulative effect was devastating.
Now even the sharks, it seems, have sharks — some with names like iTunes and Netflix and Amazon On Demand, all making streaming video of movies and TV shows available to consumers.
“It makes us less exclusive,” WKYC (Channel 3) General Manager Brooke Spectorsky said of the alternatives (including his own network, NBC, making programs available on other platforms). “I have very mixed emotions about it.
“It’s hard to complain about the [streaming of the] Super Bowl because we know it’ll be the No. 1 event of the year. … I still think most people are not going to watch the Super Bowl on a 3-inch screen or a 7-inch screen,” he said.
But WKYC or other stations may be hurt even more with programming that is less event-driven.
Because, frankly, viewers like the sharks. The rise of online and on-demand viewing has given individual viewers more choices and more control over them.
If, for example, you love the commercials in the Super Bowl but don’t want to sit through the game, you may find the ads online, some before the game ever airs. Late last week, two of the most talked-about ads, a Honda spot with Matthew Broderick and one for Acura with Jerry Seinfeld, had each been watched more than 8 million times.
According to Time Warner Cable, its Start Over function — enabling viewers to go back to the beginning of an unrecorded program already in progress — was used more than 11 million times in Northeast Ohio in 2011. (Among the most popular restarted programs: SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas & Ferb.)
NBC put the first episode of Smash, a series premiering on Monday night, on its website days before the premiere — and several industry insiders said that online is an effective way to bring an audience to a new show.
Or to an old one with a new twist: Marc DeBevoise, a key executive with CBS Interactive, said one of the benefits of Ashton Kutcher joining Two and a Half Men was that Kutcher brought with him serious social-media connections such as his 9.3 million Twitter followers.
Survival of programmers
But certain issues linger. A big one is how a traditional TV programmer in broadcast or cable can survive in a world where programs are available from other sources in relatively rapid fashion, particularly a new generation of viewers accustomed to trolling the Internet.
“I have a 19-year-old son,” Spectorsky said. “He doesn’t watch broadcast TV that much. He goes to his iPad and watches an episode of The Office over the Internet. … He’s a digital native.”
One of the solutions has been to embrace and exploit other delivery systems. Time Warner Cable, for example, has an app that makes programming available through iPads and iPhones and expects to expand that to Android systems in 2012; even now, Android users can use the app to schedule recordings by their cable boxes.
Among traditional broadcasters, ABC, NBC and Fox all make episodes of programs available online through their own sites and Hulu (which also carries selected cable programs); CBS uses its own website and its online CBS Audience Network.
But is there money to be made from such efforts, or from any of the growing technological alternatives?
Netflix, for example, has pushed ever more aggressively into streaming video (and infuriated customers when it tried to offer streaming and DVD-by-mail rental as separately priced services instead of a single package). But Advertising Age noted that streaming has far less potential profit than DVDs, with shorter rights deals for streaming; the publication estimated that one DVD subscriber was as profitable as four or five streaming subscribers combined.
Hulu, famous for offering programs for free, has added a pay tier. Online videos from networks now routinely include commercials (and do not let you skip them); some on-demand channels disable the fast-forward function so you have to sit through the ads.
Some program producers are still reluctant to let their programs be replayed online, said DeBevoise senior vice president of the entertainment division of CBS Interactive. They fear that the replays could hurt the programs’ earning potential when the show moves from network to syndication (where many shows finally make their profits) or when it is sold on DVD. Even though a TV episode may be available for online reviewing for just 30 days after its original telecast, that still adds to its audience exposure.
All these changes may require rethinking of what a program distributor has to provide. There is no question that networks, stations and other programmers are getting ever more into social media. And broadcasters may focus on big events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, enhance them with local programming and let less-watched shows go elsewhere — if those local shows can get financed.
“If people can get this content through all these other delivery systems, and it lowers my rating and the financing to get these programs, I can no longer support them,” Spectorsky said.
As big as that question is, it is far from the only one.
What will happen to viewers who do not have computers, let alone online access, as the programming world looks past them? Cable changed the way broadcasters operated, shoving certain kinds of programs to the viewing margins. Online often promises content above and beyond what a basic telecast offers; those Super Bowl commercials I mentioned aired in a longer form online than they will on TV tonight.
What will a program designed to be seen both on a big screen and a tiny one look like? Technology does affect content. In the old days of TV, close-ups were more common, because the screens were small and the pictures often blurry.
Now I hear from viewers unhappy with audio mixes designed for home-theater systems and scenes that would look great in a darkened movie house but seem blacked out under the lights of a living room.
And what will be our relationship as viewers to the programs of the new video age, and to each other? The ancient idea of communal viewing went by the boards as TV sets multiplied in homes and channels proliferated. You’ve undoubtedly seen people in a restaurant booth, each on his or her phone, and the siren lure of product on phones will get louder. What will become of dialogue when there is always, literally, a TV screen at hand?
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. Contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.