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Networks Need a New Tune

5/11/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

On the eve of the broadcast-network upfronts, it so happened that, in Washington, the House Telecommunications Subcommittee was discussing the future of video. The voluble Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pointed out that 20,000 piano players were put out of work by the advent of talkies. The point, of course, is that change creates victims. This week, when the broadcast networks announce their fall schedules, they will be unveiling brand-new programming that still fits into an old concept: The day-and-date model. But who watches television like that?

These days, we can go to the Internet to watch episodes of network shows we miss. We can schedule programs to be recorded on DVRs or perhaps catch them on a VOD service. We all know people who brag they haven't watched “live” TV in months.

With viewer patterns changing, programmers can be forgiven for feeling that they have to retrain themselves on the fly. But despite all the inducements for viewers to create their own television experience, tens of millions of viewers—most of us, in fact—watch programs at the time they air, just the way we always have. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Indeed, it's the mass audience that made television so powerful in the first place.

Eventually, as television blends with the Internet, words like “network” and “TV schedules” will be antiquated concepts. Watching television on your laptop won't seem exotic at all. The seemingly insatiable appetite for content is encouraging and will eventually provide new revenue streams.

For now, the multiple platforms are confusing for broadcast and cable networks. In B&C's cover story this week, network executives address the uncertainty they feel about offering their series on Websites. Are they robbing Peter to pay Paul.com? Networks might be building loyalty by encouraging viewers to videostream past episodes. However, there are many video sites on the Internet—and browsers browse. How far away from a “network” is YouTube?

These are fascinating, exciting and perilous times for traditional content providers. Something is happening out there, which is propelling the idea that, in a world of dozens of video devices, consumers hold sway. For all its protestations, cable may have to offer its programming à la carte if it wants to remain competitive, a point the National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow conceded in a B&C interview earlier this month.

Things are changing. For the past two months, there have been 2.5 million fewer viewers watching the Big Four networks in primetime. That's more than just the residual effect of the earlier Daylight Saving Time.

As the networks plan for the fall season, they are going to have to fortify broadcast enterprises that still attract billions of ad dollars, all the while figuring out how to make them relevant in a world where the viewer, not the network, determines the day and date.

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