The Web is more than a shiny new toy, as evidenced by the importance placed on broadband connectivity in the Obama administration. But by its very nature, the Web tends to fractionalize, not aggregate, audiences.
Attention, advertisers: As demonstrated by the viewing numbers over the past few weeks, television can still deliver big audiences to the events that alter or illuminate our times, or simply make them easier to bear.
We talk about water-cooler moments on television series, but the fact of the matter is there haven't been as many moments like that since the proliferation of cable, and then the Internet. There is so much content to consume—we've all found our own tastes.
And yet, last Tuesday, almost 40 million Americans tuned in to watch the inauguration of President Obama. And millions more went to Websites, many of them operated by TV networks. There is something about the unique role of television that makes us sure that when the nation's current hard times turn around, stations and networks now hit squarely in the wallet will have toughed out the hard times and come back serving the public better.
We expect as much. One Sunday from now, millions of Americans will gather in front of the television set to watch the Super Bowl, and the same millions would be there regardless of who was playing. It is now an American institution, so much so that some advertisers will pay up to $3 million for a half-minute of time to talk to them even at a point when many American consumers have momentarily stopped consuming.
It now seems part of the fabric, too, that each January the Fox network inaugurates another edition of American Idol, a show that, after all, is an English import that celebrates a universal goal: to succeed at a high level by displaying talent, timing and guts. Some certainly are more talented than others, but American Idol is a little bit like scratching off a lottery ticket and actually winning. It plays to our optimistic notion that we are a nation of dreamers who succeed just by having the nerve to try.
On Fox every Tuesday and Wednesday, the show has fought the downward tide of TV ratings and remained a behemoth. Whether it continues to do so remains to be seen, but it can still deliver millions, including the younger demos advertisers increasingly crave.
Before we start sounding too Pollyanna-ish, TV is obviously in a world of hurt, some of it self-inflicted. The writers' strike was like punching yourself in the stomach not knowing the economy would follow up with a roundhouse right to the jaw.
But we have heard the gloom and doom before. TV just has to get smarter and more economical. Barack Obama came into office with pay freezes for his top staffers, acknowledging the pain the rest of the country was feeling and even predicting more to come. But with his speech came the promise that when good people invest in good programs and jettison ones that can't deliver on their promises, things get better. Television, as a business and as an art form, could do worse than follow that lead.