Halfway to oblivion, are we?
Or to salvation? You be the judge. Seven years ago, amid flying spittle and other signs of deep agitation, a notorious crank predicted the end of network television by 2020. Audience hyper-fragmentation, DVR ad avoidance, online competition and the immutable law of supply and demand were conspiring, this guy claimed, to undermine broadcast’s business model.
These were obviously the ravings of a lunatic -- one too irrational to comprehend that the society and the culture simply cannot live without CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC and CW. They are so much a part of our lives -- and our habits, and our memories, and our cultural iconography -- how could they possibly disappear? When the man in the tinfoil hat replied that desire for the status quo has nothing to do with economic viability, people just rolled their eyes. Or edged away in discomfort.
One of them was David Poltrack, head of research for CBS, who dismissed the notion on the grounds that -- duh -- network TV is too big to fail.
“If, in fact, that current system deteriorates to the point that advertisers and marketers abandon it,” he was quoted as saying in 2005, “I don't see anything that's going to replace it in the entire marketing infrastructure of the country, and the economy is going to be diminished, and that's a lot bigger problem than just a network television problem.”
Precisely -- which is why the crackpot vision was too apocalyptic to be taken seriously. I remember this all vividly, because the crackpot is me. Now seven years have elapsed since I first articulated The Chaos Scenario. Let’s just see how insanely wrong I was.
Back in 2005, the major networks’ audience had been shrinking for a decade to a mere 16.5% of TV households in prime time. That’s for all five of the nets put together. Seven years later the aggregate rating is down to an optimistic 13.5% -- optimistic because that number includes DVR time-shifters, who skip past commercials. For advertisers, those viewers may as well not exist. Removing them from the ratings, only 11.5% of households are watching network shows live in prime time. The other 88.5% are doing something else.
Oh, and the number of TV households itself declined last year for the first time in two decades. In the most recent Nielsen numbers, HUT was down by a million despite overall population growth. Oh, and in the first quarter of 2012, NBC -- despite a Super Bowl bonanza -- showed an operating loss. Oh, and ubiquitous, low-budget singing and dancing competitions –- the programs that have kept the nets afloat because of relatively large audiences and relatively low production budgets -- are showing alarming signs of fatigue. Both Fox’s "American Idol" and ABC’s "Dancing with the Stars" scored their lowest-ever ratings in their season finales.
And after the public finally loses interest altogether, there is nothing cheaper to replace the talent shows with. The only remaining step down is security-cam feeds.
So, one might ask, with all of the key metrics trending catastrophically downward, how have the Big 5 managed to keep the lights on till now? Can it just be the cheapo programming?
No, it’s the cheapo programming combined with what I call the Chaos Alphabet: desperate CMOs buying GRPs at insanely inflated CPMs because if you’re an advertiser who craves reach you are otherwise SOL. In the economics of scarcity -- and what economics aren’t? -- the scarce commodity has become mass itself. The disappointing 17.8 million viewers "Dancing With the Stars" earned for its two-hour finale still won the broadcast ratings week. So CMOs are still lining up at the TV upfronts with wads of cash and saying, “Please gouge me” -- in the same way motorists are willing to pay $10/gallon at the last gas station before Death Valley. To some brands, even the incredibly expensive Incredible Shrinking Mass Audience is better than no mass audience at all. TV fragmentation has made them crazy.
The obvious beneficiary of all this disarray should be the Internet, and sure enough, its share of the advertising pie continues to grow. There was even an online Newfront market this spring, which could be a sign that online programming can now sit at the grown-up's table. The nets are, of course, trying to become a part of the online ecosystem, like the buggy-whip manufacturer investing in the nascent driving-goggles industry.
But will the eventual integration of the Big 5’s infrastructures and the online platform create the hybrid that saves everybody?
Mind you, I’m a certified Cassandra, but I can’t see how. . CBS, ABC, NBC, CW and Fox will lose audience share to the Web at a much faster pace than they’ll gain revenue from it -- because as an advertising medium, not to put too fine a point on it, the Internet sucks. It disrupts the status quo without -- apart from search -- offering any reasonable platform for advertisers, or any promising model for profit.
So now what? Till now, the networks have dodged the bullets that have shredded newspapers, magazines, book publishing, the recording industry and Hollywood. Will they finally be mowed down in the fusillade? The Chaos Scenario imagines the end of broadcast as we know it by the year 2020. I’d be curious to hear alternate scenarios, but at least on my calendar, we are halfway there.