Money is still the object in TV land
WASHINGTON -- Television viewership is down. That's almost a man-bites-dog story.
But why is it down? There's not enough evidence yet to state why exactly, and the pattern of lower viewership is not long enough to declare it a trend.
By one token, TV viewing couldn't keep going up ever higher. The number of hours per day that the tube is on in American homes is astonishing. The Nielsen ratings service estimates that Americans watch about 147 hours of cable, satellite and broadcast television a month.
But, by another token, Americans seem to be getting more TV content through other delivery devices. They're still watching screens, just not television screens. The DVD and streaming service Netflix can be seen as one culprit. So can the Hulu streaming service. So can iTunes. So can mobile phone apps, giving credence to the notion that we'll watch something on a three-inch screen just like we would on a 43-inch screen. Of course, video games, computers and the social media websites that soak up our time like a cheap sponge share some of the credit (or blame).
But now let's look at the effects of reduced TV viewing, at least from the broadcasters' perspective.
For that, we'll turn to the Fox network. Fox has, for the past several years, won the ratings race in the coveted demographic of adults ages 18-49, which brings in the most advertising dollars.
Last year, the producers of "House" could not come up with a new contract with actress Lisa Edelstein. Her exit from the series was abrupt, and now "House" is being canceled.
Fox debuted a new and expensive series, "Terra Nova," in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. In fact, Fox tried two bottles, both Monday night originals and Saturday night reruns, booting "America's Most Wanted" off the schedule on a night already starved for original programming. It didn't work. "Terra Nova" got the ax early, and "AMW" isn't coming back. In fact, "Cops" may be on the chopping block.
Fox also tried a new series, "The Good Guys," with the intent of airing it on Fridays -- which is becoming as vast a programming and ratings wasteland as Saturday -- because the producers could deliver it cheaply. Even so, the ratings were not enough to justify keeping it on the schedule.
The six voice actors who do the lion's share of voices for "The Simpsons" took a 35 percent pay cut in exchange for a guarantee of two more years of work. After that, the show will have had 25 seasons.
Even "American Idol" is showing signs of weakness. It's still a heavyweight ratings champ -- one would have to go back to "60 Minutes" to find a series that's stayed in the full-season Top 10 for at least a decade -- but its ratings in that coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic are down this year by a whopping 30 percent. Weaker ratings mean weaker lead-ins for programs that follow it, including the late local news.
The TV industry won't collapse. Because this is a presidential election year, campaign ads will dominate the airwaves into the November sweeps and pump up network and affiliate coffers. But the low ratings may mean the buyers of those ads -- and others -- will get less bang for their buck.
Much of that will be decided in May, when the networks unveil their new fall schedules and entice advertisers to pony up for more ad buys, in what is known in the industry as the "upfronts."
If revenues shrink, the networks may try more series and gimmicks to shave costs while keeping profits respectable to satisfy stockholders. With lower budgets, this could mean more lowest-common-denominator programming.
Look at your daily newspaper. How much has it shrunk in the past 10 or 20 years? Is it still worth looking at anymore?
The same questions, asked a bit differently, may apply to broadcast television before too long.
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.
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