TV Clobbers the Movies

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Each year since 2002, the number of people buying movie tickets has been in decline. During that same period, TV viewing has seen a steady uptick, as has the average amount of time people spend in front of their sets—and this plays out across demographics young, old and in-between. The growth is particularly striking given all the in-home leisure alternatives to TV programming, from the Xbox to the Web.

Look at stats compiled by everybody from Nielsen to the Motion Picture Association of America to the Consumer Electronics Association, and a picture starts to emerge that explains why people are choosing the couch over the multiplex.

One factor is simple economics. Date night for a couple with kids easily costs $100 after the babysitter gets paid. Meanwhile, state-of-the-art home viewing has become increasingly available to the masses. Sales of home-theater kits have jumped more than 400% since 2000, while the average unit price has dropped by about a third. Last year, more than 5 million home-theater units were sold. Consumers are buying millions of increasingly cheaper digital TVs, too, with more and more opting for big flat screens that can turn even an episode of Full House into a television event.

Ever shorter windows between theatrical debut and DVD release are taking a bite out of the box office, too. At Bank of America's Media, Telecommunications and Entertainment Conference last week, executives from several major theater chains conceded as much, and called for a reverse in the trend. But that's unlikely to happen, when heavyweights like Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger are calling for exactly the opposite.

And let's not forget that TV has been plowing fertile ground lately. There's certainly no shortage of dross, but the medium is in the midst of a creative renaissance. Just look at the audience for well-wrought broadcast-network serials—a genre given up for dead not too long ago—including indisputable hits like Lost, Desperate Housewives, 24 and Prison Break.

Cable originals, both premium and ad-supported, are keeping audiences at home, too, with staples like The Sopranos and The Shield, as well as new offerings like HBO's Big Love and FX's Thief. From the ridiculous success of American Idol that crosses all demographics to the endless stream of popular youth-targeted unscripted fare (Project Runway, Laguna Beach), it's all chipping away at the moviegoing audience.

Then there's VOD, which will increasingly be a factor in driving TV viewing.

Just last week, the nation's biggest cable provider, Comcast, announced new deals to up its VOD roster. The service, which already offers CSI and Survivor within a day of their prime time debuts, is adding such NBC Universal shows as Law & Order spinoffs Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent.

At the Bank of America confab, Comcast COO Steve Burke said that it's all part of a strategy (he's currently in negotiations with ABC and Fox) to beef up the cable operator's library to make virtually every hit show available to subscribers on-demand.

As I write, the ascendancy of TV over movies can easily be found, even overseas. At MIPTV, the international trade show underway in Cannes, our sister publication Daily Variety reported last week, “It's American TV series, not feature films, that are now the hottest commodity” among “once snooty” foreign buyers.

It's finally happening. More than 50 years after TV first put fear into the hearts of movie makers, the medium is posing a serious threat to the film business. Don't listen to the recent chest-thumping from exhibitors. It's been a tough first quarter for the film business. Last year, theater admissions decreased 8.7%, and so far this year, things are flat.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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