Friday, May 13, 2011

Shrinking Wasteland

I have been worrying for years (worrying about/reveling in) about the decline in broadcast network ratings. My assumption has always been that viewers have been siphoned off by the Golf Network and VH1 and whatever other narrowcast concerns are out there. But today I just had my attention called to this.

For the first time in 20 years, the number of homes in the United States with television sets has dropped.

The Nielsen Company, which takes TV set ownership into account when it produces ratings, will tell television networks and advertisers on Tuesday that 96.7 percent of American households now own sets, down from 98.9 percent previously.

There are two reasons for the decline, according to Nielsen. One is poverty: some low-income households no longer own TV sets, most likely because they cannot afford new digital sets and antennas.

The other is technological wizardry: young people who have grown up with laptops in their hands instead of remote controls are opting not to buy TV sets when they graduate from college or enter the work force, at least not at first. Instead, they are subsisting on a diet of television shows and movies from the Internet.

That second reason is prompting Nielsen to think about a redefinition of the term “television household” to include Internet video viewers.
This has been a prodigious growth curve, and for it to reverse is serious. For an increasing number the question will no longer be "what do you want to watch tonight" but rather "what do you want to do tonight?" The idea that Americans might actually choose to participate in activities is a crazy notion that will take some getting used to.

When I first got divorced and moved into my own hovel across town, I quickly determined that I could do without cable AND television until I was back on my feet again. If I wanted to watch something, I had the iMac. Eventually I broke down and bought a flat-screen digital but the only difference was it was twice the screen size and it didn't crash when I was fetching email. And indeed, once in a while I use the TV as a second monitor.

You can live without a TV. But can the TV industry? As more and more channels try to carve up a shrinking market, you'll see cheaper shows and more reruns. TV is going to look a lot different in 5 years my friend, and you probably won't notice because you're doing something else.

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