The Rapidly Approaching Death of American Network TV

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TV programming has always fallen under certain format restrictions and limitations. Programs were delivered on certain days and times, on specific networks, with stories generally unfolding over the span of multiple episodes, which are organized into series or seasons. In American TV, this system has centered almost entirely on advertising revenue through a few major networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, selling advertising time during commercial breaks, with the value of specific time slots being determined by how large the audience is.

However, with the rise of internet streaming services, cable networks, and imports from other countries, these restrictions no longer govern the entire television market. This has led to a shift in cultural relevance away from the major networks, and toward content created for these other channels. If American network TV does not find ways to adapt, it will continue to fade in importance until it is too late for it to recover.

The Need For a Nielsen Divorce

The issue with basing decisions about TV programming on viewership is that there is no truly accurate way to measure how many people are watching different programs. Nielsen Ratings have long been the primary method of determining viewership numbers, but have many flaws that prevent the data from accurately depicting the whole picture. For instance, Nielsen Ratings do not count the majority of online streaming services, and use different ratings to count viewership of shows recorded on DVR.

Despite this, however, networks have put huge weight behind this system, and make decisions whether to renew or cancel shows based largely, or even solely, on ratings. By doing this, TV networks create a two-headed issue. Firstly, it ties the hands of the people creating shows by forcing them to focus on bringing in ratings with every episode, which shapes how they structure the overall story arc. A well-constructed story has natural lulls that serve to heighten when the story’s pace starts to ramp back up. These lulls are not necessarily the best way to keep an audience on a weekly basis, however, which makes the writers avoid them. To keep audiences engaged, you start seeing cheap ploys or storytelling techniques, such as forced cliffhangers and out-of-the-blue twists, being used.

The other major issue that networks create by following Nielsen Ratings so adamantly is a tendency to be too quick to react when a show is struggling to get ratings. This can take the form of moving the show between different timeslots, firing showrunners, or canceling a show altogether.

With the rise of video streaming services, however, the strict adherence to this dated system is no longer necessary. A show may struggle to find a regular audience on TV for countless reasons, but then boom in popularity after people have the opportunity to watch multiple episodes consecutively, or watch the most recent episode at a more convenient time. There are many examples of shows that were canceled because of low ratings, but then have become incredibly popular and well-renowned after cancellation. Arrested Development and Firefly are perfect evidence of how a show’s Nielsen Rating does not directly correspond with the potential a show has, and how a network can doom their own show by meddling too much.

The dream scenario for fans of American TV would be a switch to something closer to how the BBC (and PBS over here in America) does things, with public funding eliminating the influence that sponsorship plays in making decisions about programming. Instead of quickly reacting when a show isn’t an immediate success, they would be able to more naturally look at how to draw an audience, and then use those results when it comes time to make choices.

Unfortunately, this is impossible at this point. Instead, they need to find new ways of both measuring a show’s success, and then profiting from it. This would need to consist of including streaming viewership statistics, in the way advertising is sold, as well as becoming more embracing of mobile technology. According to an infographic about mobile app use by The University of Alabama at Birmingham, mobile advertising revenue is expected to grow 400% by 2016 from where it was in 2011. It only makes sense for networks to factor this kind of rapid economic growth into their strategies. In 2012, 84% of American adults went online daily, and that number is only going to continue growing.

Rethinking Fan Interaction

Traditional American TV networks continue to create compelling and worthwhile shows. However, in terms of cultural relevance and importance, they are dropping off quickly. In 2004, The Sopranos became the first cable show to win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, but since then, that award has gone to a cable network show nine out of eleven years, the last of which was 24 in 2006. Awards are far from a completely accurate representation of what the public thinks, but it is a good starting place.

Where we can see this shift in cultural impact the most is through social media and fan interaction. HBO and Netflix have a combined 2.62 million Twitter followers, while CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX have 2.44 million. These four networks do not require the subscription fee that HBO or Netflix do, and inherently have greater opportunities to reach a broader audience, yet they still simply do not have the same kind of connection with their fans. This kind of connection, combined with Netflix’s continual growth, and HBO’s move into the video streaming business with HBO GO and HBO NOW, does not bode well for these major networks.

This interaction is incredibly important, especially moving forward. According to Mark Burgess, a professor at Rutgers University’s Business School, and expert in social branding and marketing, in an article for the American Marketing Association, “The brand best equipped to provide useful content about a product or service and engage individual prospects through authentic brand ambassadorship is far more likely to win that prospective customer’s business.” Both HBO and Netflix embody this by utilizing social media to promote their content in ways that are substantially more interesting than simply telling people what time a show airs, which seems to be the standard model for the major networks on social media.

As social media and consumer interaction becomes increasingly important, it is imperative that these major networks adapt in order to hold onto the relevance they still have. Research by Vijay Kanabar, an Associate Professor at Boston University says, “Managing the social network environment is essential to staying relevant and building a loyal fan base. Simply having a social network is clearly not sufficient. Firms must be both engaged with those sites through monitoring and timely responses as well as actively seeking to develop consumer trust.” The longer that the major networks continue to repeat their current behavior with social media and fan interaction, the more room they leave for cable and internet streaming networks to gain ground on them.

Without doing something to give fans reasons to watch their content either on live TV, or through their own methods of streaming, people will continue migrating to Netflix or Hulu to watch their TV, and networks will fade away to almost complete irrelevance.

Words by Zachary Evans

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