Tuned In

Broadcast Television, R.I.P.

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Last fall, when the TV industry was on the verge of the writers’ strike, there was a lot of debate over whether the strike’s effects on ratings would be fleeting, or if viewers would disappear for good.

We may not have a definitive answer yet, but there are definite signs—namely, ratings figures—and they don’t look good for the broadcast networks at all. By playing tough with the writers who script their dramas and sitcoms, it looks the big networks managed to negotiate their way into further irrelevance.

In the LA Times, Scott Collins reported that all the big networks suffered double-digit sweeps declines in May. And, he surmised, it’s looking like this is more than a blip:

As the sweep suggests, the TV networks are losing not just their viewers but also their sense of specialness. They’re becoming just the lowest numbers on the multichannel dial, rather than the last outposts of mass culture. It’s true that this evolution has been happening for years, but this year a tipping point was reached, a Rubicon crossed. Broadcast exceptionalism — its supposed immunity from the market forces afflicting all other media — is finally dead.

So TV is dying, right? Not exactly. As Crain’s reports, cable-TV ratings enjoyed some healthy bumps during the strike, as cable networks aired new programming while the networks were running out of scripted shows.

In other words, the strike accelerated the trends in the media, cramming into a few months transformations that might otherwise have taken a few years. Namely: broadcast networks are by and large just big cable channels nowadays, and the distinction between them and cable—in ratings, ambition and quality—is becoming largely semantic.

Of course, this may make little difference to the big companies whose intransigence helped bring on the strike—they make money off cable too, and many of the other alternative media viewers have fled to. (Not all, though, and the strike certainly created opportunities for videogaming and online entertainment from outside the major media conglomerates.)

But to the broadcast divisions of those companies, the strike is probably not looking like such a great thing in retrospect. And for writers? It got them a better contract—but in the future fewer and fewer of them will be lucky enough to get rich deals with broadcast networks.

The fact is, broadcast TV has always been a business that thrived on people’s viewing habits’ being hard to break. But once you break those habits—as with a strike—they’re even harder to re-establish. By doing so, it’s looking like the broadcast networks have managed to downsize themselves, permanently.