Commentary

TV Watching: One Coin, Two Sides

I was struck by two articles that appeared in The New York Times last Sunday, May 13, on  the subject of the television industry and its well-being.

On the face of it, they seemed to be diametrically opposed.  The first one, “Audiences Now Rarely Drawn To Live Television” by David Carr focused on the apparent looming -- even overdue -- death knell of conventional television, based on his experience of alternative viewing options and a certain amount of data.

The second was entitled “In Evolving Media Landscape, Television Holds Sway” and was written by Stuart Elliott, who basically reports that while on the surface TV would seem to be increasingly threatened by new modes of viewing, it still stands head and shoulders above anything else when it comes to quickly delivering mass audiences for brands in an impactful way.

As Elliott points out, all projections for the upfront are, as the name might suggest, up over last year -- by between 2% to 4% for broadcasters and by 4% to 6% for cable.  Let’s not forget that last year was generally considered a good one.

So who’s right?

Well, inevitably they both are -- to a greater or lesser extent.

For my money, if I had to side with one article over the other I’d go with Elliott's.  There is no real prospect of the distributors of TV content being left out of the game in the coming years that can be identified right now.

Not only are they actively engaged in the emerging distribution channel, as Glenn Britt says: “Anything with a screen is a TV set as far as I’m concerned.”), but they are also the largest commissioners of content.  It will take a long time for any organization with the distribution potential of say Facebook to gain the skills and body of content to seriously disrupt the current landscape.  They may come to be a player over time, but it will be a long time, made longer by the constraints of life as a post-IPO company.

This is not to say that Carr’s article does not have merit or that the threat of dis-aggregated viewing is not real.  As more content is available through a wider range of on demand options and platforms, more people will inevitably shift more of their viewing to take advantage.  What is not known is the rate at which this will happen.

Personally, I do not believe the picture at present or even for the next five years is a as bleak as portrayed in Carr’s article, due simply to the enormity of the gap between the position of TV versus any and all other forms of viewing.

Like Carr, most of my viewing is done off-schedule. We have cable in our household, but we mostly use the DVR or OnDemand service.  We also have a Roku Box (courtesy of friends who got two freebies when they attended TED) as well as a plethora of computers and game consoles.

Unlike Carr, however, I cannot see in my family’s viewing patterns a reflection of what the nation is doing.  Not fully. Not yet.

Directionally speaking, I believe we will head further to the on-demand world that is already envisaged and encapsulated in the cable industry’s moves to embrace cross-platform viewing, such as TV Everywhere, HBOGo and XFinity. But right now my household, Carr’s household and quite probably yours are statistical freaks of nature.  And our time is some way off.

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