Television offers us some great programs. The Good Wife, Being Erica, and Breaking Bad are just a few examples from a long list. In the golden age of television in the ’50s and ’60s, there were few if any shows that could compete with the best of today’s programs.
Yet, the number of people watching television has been decreasing every year for more than two decades. Worse, for more than a decade, teenagers have been spending more time on the Internet than watching television. Television is failing to attract and hold the interest of the next generation of viewers.
What is wrong with television?
The problem starts with greed, pure and simple. Long ago, in the primal media swamp, an hour-long television program took about fifty-five minutes. A minute of advertisement was broadcast before the show began. Fifteen minutes later, the show was interrupted by another minute of advertising. At the half hour there was another minute plus a station break, and at the forty-five minute mark, another minute. Watching television was tolerable.
But what was tolerable for the audience was intolerable for network executives. They wanted more revenue and they could earn it simply by inserting more ads and sacrificing show time.
Now, an hour-long television program is only about forty-two minutes long. Viewers are expected to spend a third of their time watching ads.
Network executives noticed that they lost viewers every time they interrupted the show so they thought that they could be clever by distributing the ads at strategic intervals. Their brilliant idea was to begin shows with a long period without ads to hook the viewer and then pile the ads on at the end when they hope that the viewer is too involved to turn off the set. And they take ads out of programs with low viewership and insert them into the more popular programs. Government regulation allows this.
Worse, research showed that ads are more memorable if they are repeated while still in the viewer’s short-term memory. So the networks began the truly obnoxious practice of repeating ads within the same three-minute break.
These tricks drove many viewers to stop watching altogether. Ratings dropped for all but the most popular shows. You would think that the executives would have learned that they need to respect the audience at least a bit.
Nope. Instead of learning their lesson, the network executives found new ways to jerk the viewer around. In a desperate bid to grab a diminishing audience share, they began trying to hook viewers with multi-episode plot lines, inserting a little soap opera or a season-long mystery into every drama series. Now, the forty-minute show is effectively a half hour for the casual viewer: thirty minutes for the story that the viewer tuned in to watch and ten minutes for a bit of plot that’s meaningless unless they have been watching every episode in sequence.
They lost more viewers.
Okay, so if the remaining viewers have to watch every episode in sequence to make sense of all the story arcs then the networks will make that easy. Right? Or at least make it possible. Right?
Wrong. Convinced that they had their remaining viewers tightly trapped into watching their series, they began trashing the program schedules.
First, they tried moving series around in mid-season. For year after year in the fifties and sixties, on Sunday night, everyone watched Disney, followed by Ed Sullivan, followed by Bonanza. Nobody had to check the TV Guide. And every other night had its own lineup. Those days are no more. Now, if a program on Tuesday has a bigger audience than a competing network’s program on Wednesday, the network will suddenly move it, expecting that the more popular program will take audience share away from the other guy’s less popular show.
For this to work, they assume that viewers are watching television all the time and, at the beginning of every time slot, will tune into the program that grabs their interest.
Did it work? No. That’s not the way modern audiences watch TV and there were some spectacular failures. The critically-acclaimed Murder One consistently lost audience share when they shifted time slots and made their viewers miss episodes in the serialized plot line. The top-rated reality show, The Mole, lost almost its entire audience when it shifted time slots. Excellent shows could not survive the stress of constant schedule shuffling. On the other hand shows like Law & Order, which occupied the same ten o’clock Wednesday time slot for years survived just fine.
Did the network executives learn anything? Not a thing. They began playing more drastic games with scheduling. Traditionally a television season was twenty-six episodes: half the year was new episodes and the other half re-runs. Then they cut the standard season to a mere thirteen episodes: a quarter year of new episodes, a quarter year of re-runs, and the other half year with a replacement program. Except that wasn’t good enough. They began intermixing new episodes with re-runs hoping that people would watch episodes that they’d already seen only a couple of months ago. And then they began playing re-runs to try to get viewers back up to speed on the on-going plot lines before the new episodes begin.
Now, nobody knows what’s going to play or when, even with on-screen program guides to help.
So what do people do? They watch less television, of course. But, thanks to technology, they are watching as many programs as ever. They record them, not only to skip commercials, but to avoid re-runs and out-of-order episodes. They buy DVDs so they can see a whole season at a time. They download them off the Internet, either from legitimate sites or as pirated files.
Have the studio executives learned their lesson yet? Hell, no. Now they strut around saying that new technologies are killing television. Nonsense. The new technologies are not that good. It’s too expensive to buy everything on DVD. The Internet doesn’t have enough bandwidth so it takes too long to download enough programming. PVRs take too much planning.
The only reason that people cobble together enough programs with combinations of these technologies is because network executive already killed television. They jerked the viewers around so much that they jerked them away from the screen.
If they want their audience back, they can get it easily enough. Reduce the commercial interruptions down to one minute breaks every fifteen minutes. Keep the shows on at the same time on the same nights. Save the multi-episode plot lines for programs that need them, like soap operas, and make most shows self-contained episodes.
Viewers will come back if the network executives can get themselves under control and stop driving them away.
But time, and technology, marches on. If the executives don’t make television watching tolerable again, the alternative technologies will soon be good enough to kill television permanently.
No audience, no advertisers, no television. It’s simple economics.