Linear TV’s decline to less than 50% of all TV viewing was long in coming -- very long.
No matter what label you put on it -- “linear” or “legacy” -- audience erosion in TV’s older precincts has been going on for years, even decades.
Indeed, it has been a recurring theme running like a thread through the history of television and the coverage of the business by TV beat reporters since the 1980s.
In 1997, even Cosmo Kramer was aware of it, in his goofy, nonsensical “Kramer” way, of course.
“Well, it seems that due to the vagaries of the production parameters, vis-a-vis the fragmenting of the audience due to cable television, carnivals, water parks ... ,” he blurted out in the “Seinfeld” episode titled “The Summer of George,” as he nervously attempted to fire Raquel Welch from the Broadway musical “Scarsdale Surprise.”
According to new data from Nielsen out last week, linear TV has dipped below 50% of TV usage for the first time.
Linear TV’s share of viewing came in at 49.6% vs. 50.3% for streaming and “other” media -- defined by Nielsen as unmeasured VOD, set-top box streaming, audio streaming, gaming or DVD playback.
The breakdown was as follows: broadcast at 20%, basic cable at 29.6%, streaming at 38.7% and “other,” 11.6%.
The phrase “less than 50%” makes last week’s news feel like a milestone and even a tipping point in some way, and perhaps it is.
In the context of TV history for the last 30-plus years, however, the dipping of linear TV usage to a level just under 50% seemed inevitable.
Or it came to look that way since no one ever devised a way to stop it.
This latest erosion news is about as significant as all the erosion stories that preceded it for years, starting long ago when the first audience-erosion wave was felt by the broadcast networks coming from basic and pay cable, videocassettes and VCRs, DVR playback and other new home entertainment delivery systems.
Now basic cable is in the same boat as the broadcast networks -- still primarily a linear TV business, and one that is characterized by commercial overloads that are also said to be depressing viewership.
Unless someone cares to share some with me, there seems to be no evidence to suggest that audience erosion in linear TV will reach some point where it will level off and still remain viable.
What can the owners of linear media do about it all? Their response so far is to attempt to engineer a shift of most, if not all, ad-supported television to their streaming platforms.
Streaming represents a modern way of delivering entertainment content to homes. Once upon a time, so were over-the-air broadcast signals, and later, homes wired with cable.
The constant is ad sales. The delivery systems change, but in many ways, the business stays the same -- or so it is hoped.