The Curious Case of the Disappearing TV Viewer

The New York Times examines the underlying trends of primetime’s sharply declined television viewership.

Across the television landscape, network and cable, public television and pay cable, English-language and Spanish, viewing for all sorts of prime-time programming is down this spring — chiefly among the most important audience for the business, younger adults.

In the four television weeks starting March 19, NBC lost an average of 59,000 viewers (about 3 percent) in that 18-to-49 age category compared with the same period last year, CBS lost 239,000 (8 percent), ABC lost 681,000 (21 percent) and Fox lost 709,000 (20 percent).

There are probably a few ways to interpret what’s happening. The first being that a majority of people are no longer watching live television as much due to DVRs, Internet streaming, purchasable downloads, and piracy. Unfortunately, the analytics available for measuring a show’s true audience haven’t kept up with the times. Second, the overall television audience hasn’t decreased in size, it’s just been spread out over more shows; in other words, the overall audience is watching 15-20 shows at one time instead of four or five.

More interesting is that in 2012 a hit television show like Modern Family only attracts about 5.2 million viewers during it’s live airing. Twenty years ago, that would be a small enough audience to get the show cancelled.

Further, it appears that television executives learned nothing from the digital music conversion and problems of that industry nearly a decade ago. For example, DVRs have made reruns pointless. People hate reruns and don’t watch them because of DVRs, which, by the way, have existed for a decade now. Yet reruns still exist. There’s no reason for a show’s season run to stretch from September to May (roughly 36 weeks of 22 new episodes and 14 reruns). Why have networks been slow to adapt to the HBO/AMC/FX model of 13 episodes all at once?

One executive admitted to watching AMC’s The Walking Dead like a normal person by using a combination of Netflix and iTunes and then binging on the first two seasons with his son. Then, after catching-up, he watched the season two finale when it actually aired.

“We watched that live,” he told the New York Times. “It was not nearly as good. The commercials broke the tension. We had watched the other episodes with blankets over our heads. I hate to say this to the AMC executives and everybody else in the business, but I will never watch ‘Walking Dead’ live again.”

If an executive won’t even watch commercials, what do you think normal people prefer? The whole television model has become fundamentally broken. I’m still waiting for a daring network or station to disrupt the whole darn thing.

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