The death of television (or not)

putting television in the graveDuncan Riley poses an interesting argument in “Television will be the first traditional media medium to fall” via The Inquisitr. The Australian Riley is a prolific writer and observer of technology and was one of the lead guys at TechCrunch before moving to the Inquisitr. The point is he’s a smart guy and generally spot-on, but he misses the mark by a mile in this piece.

His argument is simple: television is the most vulnerable to technological and behavioral disruptions. Newspapers will survive, because journalism will survive. Radio will last longer than TV due to listening in automobiles. As any good web writer does, Riley sources his facts with links, which allows the reader to concur with or deconstruct the argument. Here’s an example:

The television switch off is real. In the United States, 2.5 million viewers switched off in the spring on 2008 compared to the same time in 2006. Statistically this is only a small percentage of the overall viewing audience, but among those still watching television, the amount of television they watch each day is declining.

The problem here is that the source material doesn’t support the conclusion. Television viewing is up, according to Nielsen. The link above references a decline in viewing on the major four networks in the spring of 2007. Those losses have been more than made up by growth in cable viewing. The second link references an IBM study — also from last year — that examined DVR usage and online use in the home. While declaring TV and the Internet to be on equal footing, the study does not definitively state that “television” viewing is declining.

After a few commenters made note of Riley’s absolutism, he backed off in an update at the bottom of the article and “clarified” his argument by saying, “I am not suggesting that the experience of sitting around a large screen TV watching sport or other content is going to fall. It never will, but content delivery via broadcast television (ie television networks, or collectively the television media) will fall.”

I have argued for years that the historic network model is history, so it’s pretty hard for me to disagree with what Riley is saying. The networks just don’t “need” the affiliates like they used to need them, and the Web gives them a way to connect directly with viewers. I do believe that on-demand viewing will be a big future model, but there are serious questions as to how that will be supported through advertising. The 30-second ad model — the one viewers are escaping through the use of those DVRs — pays for a ton of quality (and perhaps even more not-so-good-quality) programming, so before one can declare viewing to be “dead,” there must be in place a mechanism for replacing all that money.

I’ve had numerous health issues this past month, so I’ve spent a lot of time in front of my bedroom TV set, and I can tell you that my biggest problem is not finding something good to watch but keeping track of the shows I really do like to watch in a fragmented marketplace.

Sorry, Duncan, but I think broadcast television will outlive both newspapers and radio, and I’m reminded of Robert Metcalfe’s famous 1995 prediction that the Internet would suffer a catastrophic collapse in 1996. He literally ate his words later. The affiliate system is surely in trouble, but broadcasters have the ability to create and serve local programming to large, local audiences cheaply, and this advantage cannot be stripped away easily. That’s not to say that broadcasters can rest on their laurels, because we all know there’s much work to be done. But putting broadcast television in the grave by 2018 is, well, just folly.


  1. Drew Robertson says

    “I do believe that on-demand viewing will be a big future model, but there are serious questions as to how that will be supported through advertising.”

    Let’s suppose the definitive answer is “No, there isn’t a viable advertising model for on-demand viewing.” That means that the HULU, Joost, Veoh, etc models that NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC et al are betting on won’t survive. But by then the old local affiliate system where the networks actually had partners promoting their programming and national advertisers in 150+ DMAs will be kaput. I don’t think the big networks will get a chance to try something else. So maybe 2018 is optimistic.

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