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Evan Shapiro

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The Death of Television

Posted: 12/14/11 12:00 AM ET

This year, I began teaching an undergraduate class on Television at NYU's Stern School of Business. If you want to feel stupid about your job, stand in front of sixty nineteen and twenty year olds, paying an exorbitant amount of money to learn about your business. After agreeing to teach the class, panic-stricken about looking like a fool in front of the next generation, I hunkered down and did something I never did in the four years before I dropped out of college -- I studied.

I read practically everything I could on the subject of television -- trying to find within the history and current events of my chosen business, something that would help me predict the future trajectory of the industry to this roomful of thirsty minds. Among the many patterns that emerged was a recurring cycle of doom which seems to infect television reporting every few years. Once a decade, conventional wisdom decides that television will be killed off by a new technology. The VCR was going to destroy the Television Business. Then the DVD. Next, the DVR was going to 'ruin the ecosystem.' Yet, to date, each of those predictions have been, well, wrong. To date, nothing has killed, or even seriously wounded television. That, however, has not stopped new "Chicken Littles" from waxing apocalyptic the fate of TV, again and again.

The current and perhaps scariest Bogey Man yet is the INTERWEBS (duhn-duhn-DUHN!). The most recent doom-sayers predict ominously that audiences will "cut the cord" in favor of online video on their iPads, laptops and even on their big screens. The latest example of this gloom-o-logy is on full display in "The Death of Television May Be Just 5 Years Away" by Jim Edwards.

To say that television is going to be replaced by online video -- or by anything else -- both misinterprets the facts and misunderstands the very definition of TV. Sorry, Jim. Television is not a box or a screen; it is a personal experience shared between a storyteller and an audience. Prime Time is not a slot on a schedule -- it is an expectation of creative execution and quality. No matter when or where or how someone watches television, it is still TV -- something rather different than a shell named Marcel or Rebecca Black singing about her choice of car seat.

In fact, American TV is stronger now than ever, with no signs of slowing down. Rather than destroying television, these "disruptive" technologies have created something new called 'TV,' which is more potent, more vital and more important than at any point since the first black and white broadcasts.

According to Forrester Research, the amount of TV viewing has increased by 25 percent in the past five years, from just over four hours, to just over five hours -- PER PERSON, PER DAY. Think about that for a second. Thanks to emerging technology, in the past five years, humans have found an additional hour each day to watch TV (many have also found an additional hour to play Angry Birds or an additional four to play World of Warcraft, but I digress). Technology not only did NOT erode viewing, it did the seemingly impossible, it actually created time -- a new hour every day, seven new hours every week, 365 new hours -- more than 15 additional days -- every year. More people watch more television, now, than ever.

Once again, television has just refused to die. It has evolved.

As for those cord cutters... it is true that over the past year, paid TV subscriptions have flattened, or even declined. And, yes, technology has given audiences the power to disintermediate the advertisers who sponsor much of what is produced. These are indeed worrisome trends for an industry that relies on cable subscriptions for an enormous part of its revenues and advertising for most of the rest. It means that those of us in the business must adapt to the changing needs of the audiences we serve, in order to better reflect the value they attach to the programming we provide. We must change or risk becoming a sequel to the music industry.

However, there is much evidence that technology is in reality helping the TV business evolve to meet those needs. The advent of "social viewing," driven in great degree by Twitter, has compelled the most passionate viewers to watch, live, along with their social graphs -- or otherwise be left out of the conversation. This has created a next generation of "event" programming. John Jurgensen captures this phenomenon perfectly in his terrific Wall Street Journal piece. And, there is good evidence to show that the "cord free" consumer plugs back in when they desire high quality programming in a high def universe in reliable doses. It seems even the "cord free" generation wants cable, as soon as they can afford it. Dan Frommer eloquently described his two years as a cord-cutter in his piece People! Let's Be Realistic About This Cord-Cutting Stuff; "It was, uh, okay." As soon as Dan moved in with his girlfriend, they plugged back in, post-haste.

Look, we all have to accept that television is no longer the 'mass medium' it once was. Yes, shows like the Super Bowl, American Idol and Dancing With The Stars will continue to attract large, live, event-sized audiences. But, for some time now TV has been a niche-oriented, asymmetrical viewing experience -- many people, watching many different things, in many different places at many different times. Gone are the days when Mom, Dad, Sis, Bro and Spot sat on the living room couch to watch Meathead and Archie argue out the issues of the day (kids, tweet your parents about that reference). Now, more often than not, everyone is off watching their own stuff on their own device, whenever it's convenient for them. The couch has been replaced by the Facebook page, and the next day's water cooler conversations are reserved for Twitter in the moment.

No matter how the content is received, however, it is still TV. True, audiences for "hit shows" like Pawn Stars, Mad Men and Portlandia (coming back to IFC January 6!) are MUCH smaller than the hits of previous eras like M*A*S*H or Cheers. But that's because they are catering to far more specific and sophisticated tastes. With much smaller viewership than Arrested Development had when Fox cancelled it, series like The Daily Show, Awkward, Breaking Bad and Always Sunny In Philadelphia have become cultural signposts -- defining the very specific segments of society they reflect. Free from needing to appeal to the greatest (and lowest) common denominators, shows like No Reservations, Children's Hospitaland Intervention may indeed attract a fraction of the viewership of Wings and Fantasy Island, but they generate a much greater sense of passion and devotion from their audiences, allowing programmers to take risks once unthinkable to TV suits like myself.

Unlike radio, which was replaced by television as the national touchstone, nothing has replaced TV as our collective cultural conduit. It is the most relevant content in our culture. Nothing even comes close. American TV is the most liked, followed, desired and demanded content on earth, and, in my humble and obviously, biased opinion; it may actually be our nation's most important export.

Just so you know this isn't hyperbole: Jersey Shore has more Facebook Likes, and Snooki has more Twitter Followers, than the New York Yankees, The Dallas Cowboys and The Green Bay Packers, combined. And, while you may not like -- or admit to liking -- that show, you cannot argue its influence on our culture. For every Jersey Shore, however, American TV has given us series like Louie, Beyond Scared Straight, Walking Dead and Portlandia (returning January 6 on IFC -- in case you missed it). You may not like all of it, but when you look at the scope of the current slate of American TV, you would be hard pressed to deny that the state of the art has never been higher.

And, with more new companies (Google, Netflix, Amazon) heaping even greater resources into American TV content, and stalwarts like AT&T, News Corp, Comcast and Time Warner doubling down on the medium, it's infinitely arguable that the best days of the medium are still ahead.

So, to those who tirelessly predict the doom of television at the hands of the cord cutters, over-builders and webheads; I tell you what I say to the NYU students on the first day of class:

Television as we knew it, is Dead. Nothing will replace it. Long Live TV.

 

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