Reports that broadcast network television ratings are down across the board indicate that one network’s programming strategy is not necessarily better than another. So what might be happening? Audience behavior is changing. Nielsen, after much pressure from networks, has finally decided to include in its (miniscule) sample households that watch programming online only.
TV networks seem to be frantically trying to revive audience viewing of traditional, linear, scheduled programming, while simultaneously trying to find audiences on other platforms, such as Hulu and network web sites. Fretting about “cannibalizing” their linear audiences with timeshifting online audiences (which don’t generate as much revenue), many networks seek the magic bullet in “must see” live programming (sports, awards, contests).
This ping-ponging around reminds me of another era, the decline of network radio during the rise of network television. Many members of the radio and advertising industries believed that network radio would survive the arrival of television. Radio listening seemed so ingrained in American culture. Such large audiences gathered around the radio to hear dramas, comedies, quiz shows, and soap operas, it was hard to imagine they would ever stop.
Anne and Frank Hummert, whose soap opera “empire” dominated daytime network radio programming in the 1930s and 1940s, entered the 1950s confident that they could preserve their large audiences of housewives. Surely, women washing dishes would still listen to the radio as they worked. As audiences declined, the Hummerts tried everything they could think of. They experimented with schedules, used guest stars, changed plot lines, tried new actors, found new sponsors. Eventually, each of the programs went off the air. Their radio soap operas—serious, didactic, ponderous, repetitious, moralistic—were replaced by more character-driven television soap operas.
Meanwhile, radio networks morphed into television networks. During the transition, the networks experimented with simulcasting programs on both radio and television; they emphasized live programming to attract audiences; and much early television programming followed well-established radio formats (game shows, variety shows, quiz shows).
In retrospect, the shift away from national network radio programming seems obvious. Of course television would replace radio as the primary entertainment medium.
Is this shift happening today, but from linear (scheduled) television to online (time-shifted) viewing? Is the television industry today, like the radio industry of the early 1950s, aware of the momentous shift and yet still in denial that it is really happening?
Several decades from now, will this transition seem similarly obvious?