Commentary

What Is Television Anyway?

TV IS DYING. LONG LIVE TV. Does the word "television" mean anything anymore? The idiot box may be smarter, and more enduring, than we think.

Television is having its Sybil moment. Not unlike the title character played by Sally Field in the 1976 made-for-TV movie of the same name, television seems to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. Advances in visual experience, control, technology, display, and the quality and diversity of content have come in such swift succession that the divide between new forms of television and the mainstays seems to widen daily.

Consumers now live with broadcast television, cable television, video-on-demand, Internet TV, video iPods, time-shifted television via digital video recorders, and wireless video across an array of devices, just to mention a few of TV's multiple identities.

The effect of this fragmentation is to render the word "television" all but meaningless. An unfortunate consequence of being all-encompassing is that it also implies a lack of uniqueness. Indeed, how do you define the soul of a medium that was never suspected of having one in the first place? Rewind to the 1970s and recall that the cantankerous Archie Bunker, icon of CBS' long-running "All in the Family," dubbed TV "the idiot box."

Not that the growing movement to replace the word television with some iteration of "video-based entertainment" is any better. If anything, it's worse. So generic is that moniker that it elevates home movies to the same level as "60 Minutes." That's to say nothing of the arrogance inherent in attempting to erase television's massive cultural impact like so much chalk on a blackboard.

After all, it's not as though television's impact is waning. The average U.S. household watched more than eight hours of television a day last season, according to Nielsen Media Research, an all-time high. Television viewers aren't being cannibalized. They're mutating. It's no coincidence, for instance, that the two best-selling consumer electronics products on the market are huge flat-screen TVs and mobile devices with small viewing windows. People want to spend more time with television or video. It's like Visa's old ad slogan: everywhere we want to be.

Television is, at its most basic, a habit. And for a vast majority of people, that habit is part of a daily routine. It has achieved what Paul Levinson, chairman of Fordham University's Department of Media and Communications Studies, calls a "media ecological niche," which essentially means that it aids and abets basic human needs. We wake up, and often fall asleep, with it. We tune in to it for information, entertainment, and even education. We invite friends over to watch it, particularly live sports and entertainment events, or turn to the characters on our favorite shows for companionship when we're alone.

Consider AOL's recent launch of In2TV, a channel for such vintage television programming as "Welcome Back, Kotter," "Chico and the Man," "Growing Pains," and "Alice." The free, on-demand online service runs full-motion advertising during commercial breaks.

Those shows are "unlikely to sell as DVDs, are not attractive to traditional cable networks, and have too small an audience to warrant taking up space on cable operators' VOD servers," according to Pali Research analyst Richard Greenfield. But there is a segment of the population that is interested in this kind of programming -- roughly 300 people had posted comments to the service's message board when we last checked -- and that's all that matters.

Television will always find an audience. It's the size of the audience, and the resulting ad dollars targeted to that audience, that determine what screen the programming appears on. Ad dollars always follow the audience, and the bigger the audience, the larger the screen on which content is presented.

Take this year's NCAA basketball tournament, for example. CBS drew 5 million visitors to its March Madness On Demand Web site, mostly during the college basketball tournament's early rounds, when only one of a possible four games could be televised. The first night of the Final Four, when two games were broadcast back-to-back, the tournament drew nearly 12 million viewers.

These statistics are not evidence of one platform being abandoned for another -- rather, they point to the way different distribution methods are expanding the television audience. Now all that needs to be figured out is how to reach that fragmented audience.

"Too many advertisers are taking television ads and slapping them on other mediums, which isn't effective and doesn't work," says Tim Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.

The concept of video advertising is starting to find its way into the media community's collective consciousness. Starcom MediaVest Group recently created a "video investment group" that will deploy a holistic approach to determine how to work brand messages into video consumption, which is a fancy way of saying that Starcom wants to figure out which screen people are watching television on so marketers can advertise to them.

Even TiVo, a key player in the upending of television's business model, is getting in on the ad-tracking improvement movement. Launched three months ago, TiVo's AdSearch application, says CEO Tom Rogers, "seeks to apply the Internet's search advertising model to television." The idea is to empower viewers to seek out the advertising they want instead of having ads coming at them randomly, as they do now.

"To suggest that the television set will be a less important anchor in the viewing experience is simply not true," Rogers says. "Time-shifting, place-shifting, and the rest are all tempered by the increasingly improving experience of sitting at home in front of a bigger, better, clearer television set."

A recent Jupiter Research study noted, for instance, that 88 percent of households don't have a DVR, and 95 percent have not downloaded a TV show. About the same percentage do not have high-definition TV, and more than 90 percent of all TV viewing is linear.

To put it another way, people aren't going to be huddled around their laptops or cell phones watching the Super Bowl. The Internet may indeed create an infinite universe of television networks, but watching television on the Internet will always take a backseat to watching it on a traditional set, because the aesthetic experience is inherently different. Television is a lean-back activity, while broadband TV is a lean-forward one.

Consider YouTube: The video portal's 25 million daily hits are surely eye-popping, as are the 30 million videos posted to the site daily. But at press time, the most popular video on the site, a short called the "Pokémon Theme Music Video," had attracted fewer than 7 million views in four months on the site. Moreover, it's the only video to generate more than 6 million hits.

Still the One?

Saber rattling aside, the reason why traditional television still commands a disproportionate share of marketing dollars -- just under $60 billion last year, according to a TNS Media Intelligence report -- is that it's still the best way to reach a mass audience.

"Is there anyone who would argue that 'American Idol' isn't as big a phenomenon as anything in the history of television?" asks Burton Jablin, executive vice president of Scripps Networks. "The success of that show is all a function of traditional TV metrics -- great programming that compels you to tune in and watch during its regularly scheduled time."

Yes, the Grammys scored the second-lowest ratings ever this year, and the numbers for the Academy Awards broadcast were down 10 percent from 2005. Of course that's what the headlines are going to emphasize, along with countless other examples in which television appears the loser. It's the business story equivalent of, "If it bleeds, it leads." Framing the story in that light attracts readers. Who wouldn't want to read a story about a tech-driven underdog movement on the cusp of usurping power from the entrenched leader?

That's a much sexier story than one pointing out that not only does television remain capable of generating massive audiences -- the Grammy and Oscar broadcasts drew 17.6 million and 27 million viewers, respectively -- but it also seems to be driving viewers to engage with other media. Just ask NBC: The Peacock network will tell anyone with ears that, far from a ratings stinker, its Winter Olympics telecast drew robust ratings when Web viewership is factored in.

"While much of the discussion is centered on how people are moving away from mass vehicles, a big part of [popular] culture involves rallying around similar ideas," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, president of Interpublic Media's Consumer Experience practice.

Indeed, for all their bluster about shifting buying away from television, advertising practitioners themselves inadvertently conceded this point during the Association of National Advertisers TV Ad Forum in March. The same survey that found nearly 80 percent of advertisers claim they lack confidence in the effectiveness of TV advertising also found 22 percent of them claiming traditional TV is the most promising advertising vehicle of the future.

Rather than presenting a contradiction, however, the results speak to how the pairing of television with new forms of video delivery can feed off each other to help expose niche content to a mass audience, and attract new audiences to emerging niches.

"Putting something on television helps institutionalize trends and make them more acceptable," Brooks says, "and Internet video has the innovation and risk-taking that traditional television lacks."

For example, VH-1's "Web Junk 20" series, which showcases user-generated video clips posted on iFilm.com, and Al Gore's Current TV, offer legitimacy to user-generated television. At the same time, the Internet has produced such wildly popular gems as "The Real Simpsons," "MySpace: THE MOVIE!," and even "Masturbating Cat," that would never play even on cable.

Media companies are starting to mine this symbiosis for both audience and profit. On Viacom's recently launched Web site www.the-n.com, which features content from kids' network The N, users are invited to edit programming from the channel to create their own episodes and videos. Those videos can then be e-mailed to friends and entered for possible airing on the network. The E! network recently partnered with YouTube for a contest offering $2,500 for the best user-generated video satirizing pop culture to help promote a segment on its show "The Soup" called Cybersmack.

Such examples prove that for a medium criticized for being reactionary (including in the pages of this magazine), the record thus far shows television to be surprisingly nimble in the face of rapid technological and cultural change. Walt Disney Co. President-CEO Bob Iger is widely credited with planting the first wet kiss from traditional broadcasters on the cheek of media innovators when he signed a deal to make "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," among other ABC shows, available via Apple's iTunes Music Store last October.

Clearly, television was a bit slow on the uptake in harnessing the power of new distribution technologies, but the medium wasn't caught nearly as off-guard as its counterparts in the music business. Music labels are suing people, seeking to shut down Web sites, and withholding products -- activities that antagonize and ultimately drive consumers away. When viewed through that lens, television's tentative embrace of new media and alternative distribution platforms looks positively progressive.

Television, both conceptually and physically, isn't leaving the scene. At worst, it is in a state of arrested development, and arrested development can continue for a long time. Consider, for example, that despite overnight mail delivery, UPS, FedEx, and e-mail, Western Union only this year announced it would send its last telegram.

If the practice of sending telegrams made it until 2006, how long do you suppose it will take until television as we know it ends its broadcast day? The answer, quite simply, may be never. So stay tuned, the revolution will indeed be televised -- ideally, in as many forms and on as many screens as possible.

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