First, let me say that I neither hate nor love television, either the medium or the message. It’s been a wonderful homogenizer of civilization over the past 6 or so decades, although the internet has certainly changed its impact in the same way that TV changed radio.
That having been said, the TIVO (and other such devices) may be either the savior or destroyer of television. I’m waiting to see…. Let me elaborate.
First TIVO is nearly as addictive as heroin. Maybe moreso. Heroin eventually kills its users. TIVO just turns me into a vegetable for an hour a day. I dare say it does worse to people with less busy schedules. However, its addictiveness stems from its ability to really change the power structure of television versus the viewer. It really came home to me the other day when I was watching (on TIVO, no less) a recorded program (I think Craig Ferguson) interviewing Betty White. She has literally been there since day one. Really. She was one of the very first TV personalities back “in the day”. The question asked, though, was how she felt TV had changed during her tenure. She IMMEDIATELY noted that the plethora of programming today, coupled with the selectivity of the audience (“they’ve heard every joke, they’ve seen every plot twist…”) means that TV has to be very, very good indeed to capture the audience of 2011, versus, say, the audience of 1961. She noted that 50 years ago, TV could put any junk on the air, and viewers were mystified and glued to the tube. Today, TV programming has to actually be creative to click.
So, on to the TIVO. My guess is that most people are like me in this regard — I TIVO a whole BUNCH of stuff, then sit down for an hour or an hour and a half every day and just pick and choose the cream of the crop. Now, that by itself is daming — it means that TV programming has to be pretty darned good to get my attention. No longer am I wedded to when the networks want me to watch something, or what they want me to watch at the time I’m available to watch it. If I want to watch a movie that’s only on at 2:am on Tuesday, I can TIVO it (VERY easily) and watch it at my leisure on Sunday afternoon.
Commercials? Well, those poor suckers are really out of luck. No longer can they just put 30 seconds of Chevrolet on the tube in between “Gunsmoke” plot twists and know I’m going to be glued to my seat. Not that I don’t watch commercials, mind you — I’m actually quite enamored by the better ones. In fact, even though it’s pretty hard for me to get excited about this year’s superbowl likely contenders (my Saints are back home nursing their many, many wounds), I — and everyone else — can’t wait to see the commercial offerings. They’re usually better than the half time show, and generally better than the first quarter of any superbowl I can remember since Joe Namath faced off against Earl Morrall. Nonetheless, in a world of 500 channels, with TIVO ruling the airwaves, there’s no way Madison Avenue will pay top dollar to hawk Chevy’s in network prime time anymore.
So, the challenge of television is to produce 500 hours PER HOUR of “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos”. Good news — they seem to be rising to the occasion. With the declining economics of movie theaters, many of the best performers are finding that redemption in television. Currently, Bill Macy is the latest convert, chewing up the screen on Sunday nights in “Shameless” while I wait for AMC to get its act together and renew Don Draper’s contract.
On the other hand — and I’ll put my economist hat back on now — it’s hard to see how a declining set of revenues mixed with an exponentially increasing set of offerings can portend good things for the traditional television paradigm. Comcast just spent a zillion dollars to buy NBC, but buried in the deal is the fact that “NBC” may be the least profitable segment of the bunch. Take away Jay Leno and Lorne Michaels, and NBC has some real profit problems. Add the fact that, thanks to TIVO, I can watch Saturday Night Live on Sunday, and watch David Letterman at breakfast, both without 90% of the commercials, and it’s tough to figure out where the future lies for that segment of the economy.