Monday, July 9, 2007

The Changing Face of American Television

Many of you may remember this past May the many news stories trumpeting this spring as American television's worst spring in recent years, perhaps of all time. More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching television than at the same time in 2006. Lost had, well, lost nearly half its audience from its glory days, nearly 10 million viewers. NBC recorded a new record for its least watched week in twenty years. What was worse is that the audience was not down for the broadcast networks alone. The cable channels were hurt hard as well.

Both the networks and various pundits offered several different theories as to why the television audience had dropped so. Some believed that it was Daylight Saving Time starting earlier (beginning this year on March 11). Others believed that it was a simple case of the networks airing too many reruns in March and April. Yet others chalked the drop in viewership up to simply bad shows. I personally think that these particular theories carry little weight. As to Daylight Saving Time starting earlier, I did not notice anyone "taking advantage" of the sun setting later according to the clock. And I have a very simple explanation as to why they didn't. First is the simple fact that in many areas of the United States it can often be a bit chilly in mid-March to think of doing anything outdoors. Maybe people in California went out and frolicked among the daisies on March 12, but I rather suspect folks in Maine were still safely indoors with the heat running. Second is the fact that everyone I knew took longer this year to adapt to the change in time than in previous years. Quite simply, we were too tired to do much of anything beyond watch television, read books, or listen to music! If anything, I think television viewership would have increased.

As to there being too many reruns this spring, I honestly don't see that as a valid reason for people watching less television this year. Let's face it, network television in March and April has been filled with reruns since the Eighties. I honestly don't think there were necessarily more reruns airing this spring than there were last spring, or even in the spring of 2000. It seems to me that if people weren't watching television this spring because of reruns, then we would have seen a similar drop in viewership at the same time last year and the year before that. As to people turning off their TV sets simply because of bad shows, I could only agree with that if the year was 1979 (when there were a lot of bad shows on the air). The truth is that the past ten years have seen better shows than had aired in the Eighties or Nineties. Let's just look at what aired on the networks this past television season: 24, 30 Rock, Everybody Hates Chris, House, How I Met Your Mother, the Law and Order shows, Lost, My Name is Earl, The Office, and so on. The fact is that I can remember years when I couldn't even name four good shows on American television, let alone the number of them that I just did. There really isn't a shortage of good shows on the networks right now, let alone cable. Not every TV show is According to Jim or Grey's Anatomy (if they were I'd cease watching network television entirely).

While I think these theories as to the drop in viewership can be easily dismissed, there are others that I think are right on the spot. The first is the development of the digital video recorder or DVR. DVRs are basically devices which record things in digital format to a hard disk or something similar. The feasibility of this sort of recording was examined as early as 1965, when CBS examined their use with regards to freeze-frame and rewind for sports broadcasts. Ampex came out with the first hard disk video recorder in 1967. That early hard drive recorder could only record 60 seconds of information. In 1985 David Rafner, an employee of Honeywell’s Physical Sciences Center, described a drive based video recorder which could be used in the home. He filed a patent for this in 1988 and the patent was published in 1990.

It would not be until the Nineties, however, that DVRs would reach the public. In 1999 at the annual Consumer Electronics Show both Replay TV and TiVo were introduced. By 2003 DVRs would have the capacity to record two programmes at the same time. This year 17% of all Americans own DVRs. What DVRs have given viewers is more freedom towards time shifting, the recording of a programme in order to watch it later. Of course, time shifting existed before the introduction of DVRs. With the introduction of VCRs in the Seventies, the average television viewer gained the ability to time shift for the first time ever. The amount of time shifting anyone could do with VCRs was naturally limited by both the number of videocassettes one could buy at any given time and the number of VCRs and TV sets one could own. The DVR gives viewers more flexibility to time shifting than they ever had before. While the average videocassette could hold at most eight hours worth of viewing, some DVRs can hold up to 300 hours worth of television at basic quality.

While DVR ownership is growing, Nielsen has seemingly failed to keep up with the technology. It is only this year that Nielsen started measuring viewership in homes with DVRs, and even then they only count them in the ratings if they watch a programme they recorded within 24 hours of it being aired. It is safe to say that many viewers often wait more than 24 hours to watch material they recorded, whether through a VCR or DVR. This would not present any particular problems if the number of people who do record shows on DVR wasn't significant. A case in point is the episode of The Office which aired April 5. According to Nielsen 5.8 million people tuned in to the show that night. Within the week, however, those watching the show later on DVRs increased its total viewership by 32%, up to 7.6 million viewers. And the fact is that some shows tend to be more popular with DVR owners than others. For the week of April 2 to April 8, Nielsen estimated that House and Lost were the most popular shows to be recorded on DVRs.

While Nielsen has made an effort towards rating shows watched later on DVR, they have no way of measuring the number of shows that are watched on computers, whether through streaming video or downloading them from something like ITunes. Although its ratings were down this year, Lost remains the single most downloaded show on ITunes. I have no hard statistics as to how many people watch Lost on streaming video at ABC.Com, but the numbers could be appreciable. I know that when I was still working nights and my old VCR refused to record Lost, I turned to both options at different times to watch the latest episodes. Between people time shifting through either DVRs, downloading the show, or watching them on streaming video, the number of total viewers could be much greater than the Nielsen ratings would reflect.

Of course, I did not hear anyone offer yet another possible theory as to the drop in ratings the networks experienced this spring. Both my best friend and myself know people who no longer watch TV shows when they first air, nor do they record them on a DVR to watch later or download them from ITunes or even watch them on streaming video. Instead these people wait for the latest season of their favourite shows to come out on DVD. I have no hard numbers as to how many people do this, but I have no doubt that they would not be reflected in the Nielsen ratings. As in the case of DVRs, downloads, and streaming video, the numbers could be substantial.

Given the number of people who now own DVRs, the number of people who download TV shows, the number of people who possibly watch shows on streaming video, and those who simply wait and buy the shows on DVD, it is quite possible that a substantial number of people simply do not watch TV shows when they air for the first time on network television. To me this reflects not a drop in viewership for the networks, but instead a change in the way people watch television. Indeed, I can tell this by the changes in the way I watch television from when I was young. When I was in grade school, I had to watch TV shows when they aired, if I wanted to watch them at all, for the lack of any means to record them. By the time I was in my twenties, I could simply record the shows on a VCR. Now, if I miss a show, I can simply watch it on streaming video or download it on ITunes (my brother and I have done both). I don't own a DVR, but my best friend does. And he has kindly recorded shows I wanted to watch but couldn't do so when they aired. As an average American, I rather suspect that I am no different from other viewers. I rather suspect that only those who are technologically challenged are probably the only ones who haven't taken advantage of the new technology that allows us to time shift TV shows. Given this, it seems to me that rather than panic over lost viewers, both A. C. Nielsen and the networks need to consider more than the ratings of a particular show at any given time. Instead they also have to concider the total number of viewers who watch shows on DVRs, download them on computers, and watch them on streaming video, not to mention watch DVD sales closely. It is only through taking into account all of the means through which people watch shows now to know how popular any given show is.

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