Communications expert: Television networks taking wrong course against threats

Parker Bunch Contributor
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Major television networks are going the wrong way in trying to deal with the changing communications environment, says a media expert.

“Viewers are ditching ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox in droves, giving their eyeballs to cable shows, DVDs, video games and the Internet,” wrote Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University, in an editorial published in the Indianapolis Star recently. “Traditional broadcast television just isn’t relevant for most Americans anymore.”

McCall notes that while viewers benefit from-increasing diversification of programming and relatively cheap media streaming services, these advances have led to estrangement between viewers and television networks. But he says the networks are trying to deal with these challenges through an ill-advised niche market approach.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, McCall said a major mistake by television networks is their persistence in mirroring the techniques of specific cable channels, particularly when it comes to graphic or racy scenes. Because cable channels are not subject to FCC regulation to the extent that major television networks are, they are able to air scenes that are considered inappropriate for major television audiences.

McCall said that rather than attempting to appeal to a larger audience with more generally acceptable programming, television networks have followed the example set by cable channels and are airing more violent, graphic shows in an attempt to capture the attention of younger viewers.

“Broadcast networks have responded to the threat of cable by acting more like cable,” McCall said. “Networks [are pushing] the graphic language and the graphic images. Most of the programs you watch, you say, ‘Okay they’re trying to appeal to that young audience, or this young audience.'”

A related problem facing networks is the increasing diversification of television programming. Because viewers have “quite a menu” for programming, McCall said, there is a severe lack of shows that attract nationwide audiences, such as NBC’s The Cosby Show (which aired from 1984 to 1992). This individualistic programming detracts from a notion of national culture and fragments viewership into particular niches.

Audiences, McCall told TheDC, have become tremendously “polarized and fractured, both politically and culturally.”

The rising popularity of online video streaming is a very serious threat to major television networks. It it a huge draw for  younger audiences and one of the largest forces in the fragmentation of viewership .

A January study conducted by analysts from Morgan Stanley and published in Business Insider found that online viewership has increased from approximately 120 million viewers in 2008 to 400 million viewers in 2012.

At the forefront of this increase in online streaming are video providers Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. All three operate on a business model that may steal away younger audiences who aren’t loyal to a particular television channel.

These three video providers operate similarly. Users subscribe to the service and are granted access to a wide array of television shows, movies, comedy stand-up specials — even the daily news.

Videos are streamed to users’ computers, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles or any device with access to the provider’s internet databases. Users can also purchase movies or other videos to watch while offline for extended periods of time, such as during a flight.

Netflix and Hulu Plus both charge $7.99 per month for unlimited streaming. While Netflix is commercial-free, Hulu Plus has occasional ads. Amazon Instant Video, meanwhile, coupled with a $79.99 yearly subscription to Amazon Prime, allows users to stream from Amazon’s entire database of shows, movies and videos without limit.

Episodes are generally only uploaded to the online databases as early as the day after they debut on television. Amazon Instant Video, for example, allows users to purchase and download individual videos the day after they debut on television. Hulu Plus allows users to stream new episodes the day after they debut, though its database is limited in comparison to Amazon and Netflix. Netflix occasionally uploads entire seasons of shows only after the previous season is completed and a new one has begun, which can take up to a year.

While television networks require viewers to sit in front of a television at a designated time on a certain day and sit through the network’s specific advertising, these online streaming providers allow users to watch almost whatever they want, whenever they want to, in almost any location, in an unlimited amount, nearly commercial-free, for about eight bucks a month.

The one saving grace for network television is that the boob tube remains the dominant medium for video consumption. The Morgan Stanley study found that though television viewership has fallen approximately 50 percent since 2002, revenue from television broadcasts are only down between six and seven percent during that same time.

This is partly due to increased prices for television packages, but also because live television still remains the dominant means through which people consume video. Online video, while on the rise, currently remains but a small fraction of the nation’s total viewership.

McCall told TheDC that the networks are missing the chance to leverage this remaining dominance with broadly appealing product.

“I do think it reduces the amount of common cultural experiences that we have as a nation,” McCall said. “The major television networks are virtually disconnecting from the audiences they’re trying to reach. They’re too worried about what’s going on in the niche channels.”