Television: ‘Til Death Do Us Part

Every few months, I come across an article titled something along the lines of “The Death of Television As We Know It.” What these articles are speaking to is not just the death of broadcast television, but television as a whole. You know, that heavy, massive box sitting in 97.1% of American homes. According to Nielsen, we currently spend an average of over six full days a month (144 hours and 54 minutes to be exact) staring at it mindlessly. To get even more real, 84.4% of Americans have more than one television in their home. Not impressed yet? 119 million Americans own four or more. Yeah, that box—I figured you’ve heard about it before.

All of these apocalyptic articles have at least two things in common: they talk about the growth of cross-platform, on-demand viewing, and they speak of people called “cord cutters.” These are people who have switched from traditional television viewing to non-traditional services such as Netflix and Hulu. While I don’t think anyone questions the fact that “cord cutters” and cross-platform viewers are on the rise, I believe that claims of television’s “death” are greatly exaggerated, to say the least.

Long gone are the days of Mom, Dad, Tommy and Susie sitting together on the couch watching the only television set in the house. Today, we have television in our kitchens, offices, bedrooms, bathrooms and cars. Rather than a television show appealing to a mass audience like it once did, most shows now carve out a niche. It may be a newer strategy, but it works because of our ability to watch different shows at the same time in different rooms of our home. The fact is, while TV viewership is on a slight decline, TV as a medium is still an absolute force to be reckoned with. And if the ultimate death of television is truly impending, don’t tell that to the advertising industry.

When thinking about how television is doing, you have to take into consideration that digital is the fastest-growing medium and, at the same time, it’s all the rave in the advertising industry. Digital advertising is shiny, new, and can target consumers more accurately than any medium has ever dreamed of. Of course, then you have to realize that, according to eMarketer, the total television advertising spend in the United States is expected to be around $66.35 billion in 2013, which is $23.83 billion more than digital. Not to mention that by 2017, the total television advertising spend is predicted to grow to $75.25 billion, which is still $14.85 billion more than the total predicted amount for digital in the United States in that year.

Photo of traditional television view by age graph from Nielsen

It seems like everybody is so quick to throw television under the bus. While TV has some forces working against it, it also has plenty of things working for it. Unlike when TV replaced radio as the most trusted and entertaining national conduit, nothing has even come close to touching TV. Television is still widely regarded as the most desired and demanded content on earth and just as fast as television viewership is on the decline, social media use while watching TV is on the incline.

According to Nielsen, more than half of tablet owners (53%) and smartphone owners (52%) participate in social media while watching TV. At the same time, 15% of tablet users and 10% of smartphone users have watched a program based solely on the fact that they read about it on Facebook or Twitter. In the age of social media, this is something that television programs are only starting to scratch the surface with. We already see shows like The Voice, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars and Glee taking advantage of Twitter to help drive their ratings. Instead of television just rolling over and dying, the medium is evolving.

You can call this “social viewing.” The next day’s gossip is turning into in-the-moment gossip, and if you aren’t taking advantage of it, you’re missing out. If you aren’t watching a program live,  you run the risk of subjecting yourself to spoilers on social media. As the industry continues to learn more about the correlation between social media and television ratings, TV will continue to reshape the way we view and interact as an audience and as consumers.

As with any new technology that challenges the status quo like cross-platform, on-demand viewing does, television will have continuous challenges ahead, including the inevitable decline in viewership. While viewership is expected to slowly decline, the thing the authors of these articles neglect to realize is that—at some point—decline will hit a lull. It’s true that the audience has seemingly plateaued, but that doesn’t mean people will just stop watching it altogether. Television will evolve and will continue to be an absolute force to be reckoned with.

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