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The End of TV As We Know It?

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There’s a fascinating read in The Wrap by Joe Adalian, about the theory by columnist and NPR host Bob Garfield, in his book The Chaos Scenario, that the broadcast TV model is going to collapse. In a nutshell, advertisers are going to wise up and stop paying more for fewer viewers, starting a spiral of cheaper programming and further-declining ratings. 

I haven’t yet read Garfield’s book, so I won’t judge his argument. But Adalian also includes an intriguing link to a TIME magazine cover story from 1988 that also predicted doom for old-school TV:

Where will the networks be ten years from now? The doomsday scenarios come in varying shapes and sizes. As the network audience dwindles, one of the Big Three may be forced to close down or sharply curtail its operations. Or all may survive, but merely as three players in a new, more fragmented competition among eight or ten networks (both broadcast and cable) of nearly equal size.

I wasn’t at Time back then and didn’t write this, but it’s interesting to look at how right, or wrong, it was.

Of course, it’s now 20 years later, not ten. The Big Three (and what the article exotically calls “the fourth network,” Fox) are still around. They’re still making money. But their ratings are much smaller, and there’s just a pervasive sense of anxiety, if not doom, when you talk to anyone in the TV business today. And it’s hard to think of how to describe this fall’s The Jay Leno Show, first, foremost and admittedly a cost-cutting move, other than NBC “curtailing its operations.” 

The WB and UPN merged into The CW, but undoubtedly the big networks are now competing more equally with eight, or ten, or more network and cable competitors. One other thing that has happened, though, is corporate vertical integration: i.e., the companies that own the big networks also own much of the competition. From the corporate standpoint, what it means to “own a network” is different; it’s not just owning a company that holds a confederation of local affiliates, but owning an armada of cable channels who bolster your bottom line and, sometimes, share content with your broadcast network. 

And the next ten years for the broadcast networks? I usually tend to think that dinosaurs die off, but slowly. I can’t envision a scenario in which the big networks don’t end up essentially big cable channels–in fact, maybe someday one or more will literally become a cable channel–but big cable channels are nothing to sneeze at, and as long as the checks clear, people will still want to make shows for them. 

Of course, if Garfield is right and the ad money collapses suddenly, and all at once, then who knows? As I said, I haven’t read his full argument. But one good point he makes, and has made before, is one I’ve tried to make when discussing the problems of media outlets. Namely, it is not a rational argument to say that something has to keep any operation in business: that such-an-such a business will survive simply because people want its product, or because it has always been thus, or because you don’t want to imagine a world without it. It is possible for things to go away and simply not be replaced—or at least not be replaced immediately—and it does no good to rule that out as a possibility.

Feel free to make your guess here. It’s probably better than mine.

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