Media Analysis Journal: Can broadcast television hang on?

In the ever-present, kaleidoscopic changes in today’s communication universe, few facts are undisputed. But here’s one: The times are a-changing for television. The medium that redefined mass media in the 1950s and 1960s is receding from the center of public consciousness, particularly in its most venerable form – broadcast.

Walter Cronkite: To many Americans in the early network age, his word was law.

Walter Cronkite: To many Americans in the early network age, his word was law.

In the heyday of the Big Three networks (since joined by their boisterous younger brother, Fox), the programs of CBS, ABC, and NBC dominated the airwaves, and news anchors like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley were seen by many as the primary authority for the latest developments around the world. Today, the networks are just a few of the options – and not the most popular ones at that – for the latest news and entertainment. We can’t tell for certain where broadcast television is going, but using the time-honored methods of Calculatus Eliminatus, we can find out where it’s not.

Is broadcast television heading for a rebound? Not likely. The fragmentation that has progressed unabated since the 1980s shows no signs of slowing down. Moreover, the availability of new entertainment formats, like online streaming video, has further nibbled away at the once-dominant networks. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, cable channels with station numbers soaring into the high triple digits and beyond – these are practically dirty words for network executives. Since 19% of American households with television don’t have cable or satellite, according to the Wall Street Journal, the networks still have some viewers with few alternative choices. But that number is shrinking fast. Since much of the highest-quality programming today originates with cable networks, the networks’ primary appeal is through professional sports leagues, special events like award shows, and local news through individual affiliates. (In the latter instance, Jacksonville is an exception; the traditional local news power, WJXT, is not affiliated with any network.) The success of DIRECTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, which recently signed an eight-year, $12 billion extension with the league, shows that even those bastions of network strength may erode soon.

Don't mess with a Star Wars knowledge community. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t mess with a Star Wars knowledge community. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

As shown by film franchises like Star Wars, a possible way for TV producers to build audience engagement is through gaining the intensive interest of online knowledge communities dedicated to their shows. This, however, is a two-way street. Knowledge communities, which exist for programs ranging from Survivor and American Idol to The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, are quick to mobilize at the slightest hint of news affecting the program’s universe. Changes that these viewers don’t appreciate can draw a sudden and severe backlash. For movies, which are more self-contained, this may not be a serious problem; such a development is often rationalized in time. Television programming, though, depends on viewers to tune in week after week.

Jumping the shark: Not a good situation.

Jumping the shark: Not a good situation.

Once enough viewers decide that a show has “jumped the shark” (a phrase dating to Happy Days, suggesting the show has exhausted itself and no longer merits watching), the end often comes swiftly. Consequently, I suspect that broadcast television will be reluctant to embrace this risky revolution, instead opting more for an evolution of existing programming (reality and contest-based programs, crime and political dramas, and low-sophistication comedies) with the advertising-based model continuing in place. Such methods won’t reverse broadcast TV’s decline, but they won’t lead to an immediate wipeout.

The high-powered emphasis on marketing in today’s television, though always present, raises sticky ethical issues for the industry. As we know, even early television tried to construct its programming (more attention given to characters played by popular performers; cliffhanger endings) to maximize viewer engagement. In the age of reality television, this drive has increased tenfold. That becomes problematic. After all, the individuals on reality programs are not actors portraying a character; they are real people with real lives, and their actions have real results.

Million-dollar prizes really can change lives, and missing out on a hoped-for bonanza – or receiving the vitriol of online critics of a performance – can be deflating. In addition, the drive for ratings can motivate producers to increasingly risky tactics. In March, three of France’s leading Olympic athletes and several crew members died in a helicopter crash while filming a reality show in Argentina. Situations like that illustrate the ethical quandaries that may only become more pronounced as television charges on, full speed ahead, into the jungle of 21st-century communication.


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