But television is changing; other than live sporting events (primarily NFL games), ratings have never been lower and American viewers have never been spread so thin. Gone are the days when over 60% of households were watching the finale of "M*A*S*H." That episode got a 77 share, i.e. 77% of the televisions in use were tuned into that show. Recent Super Bowls only get about a 67 share, and a lot of shows struggle to get 2 or 3 share each week or a 10 share for a highly anticipated series finale.
Why is no one watching? Before 1986, there were only three major television networks and cable was in its infancy. Now most homes have dozens, if not hundreds, of channels to chose from. And that's just regular television. Add to that Netflix and RedBox and YouTube and video games and a lot of non-programmed television is being watched.
Also consider that with digital video recorders, like TiVo, viewers can "time shift" a show, i.e. record it and watch it later -- delayed by a few minutes or several days or weeks. We watch most of our shows time shifted to avoid the commercials, a practice which then causes advertisers to insert commercials into the show itself. The next time you see a blatant product placement in a show or one of those little advertising banners across the bottom third of the screen, that's the fault of TiVo users. Sorry about that.
So what does the future hold? Here are some new trends I think we'll see more of:
- Targeted, non-optional commercials. Commercials based on your age, gender, location and buying habits will appear in ways that you can't avoid. You won't be able to fast forward thru them or they will occur in or on top of the show itself. And more product placement; scenes will take place in a Pizza Hut with the actors drinking clearly-labeled Pepsi and wearing Nike branded clothing.
- Pay up front. Whether thru subscription (Netflix and cable) or pay per view/purchase (video on demand and iTunes), traditional commercials may have trouble paying for what they used to pay for. Truly free TV is dying.
- Democratization of programming. You may think that we decide what show survives now but actually television executives decide this based partly on ratings but also on costs and personalities and personal preferences. But after shows get canceled, DVD sales sometimes reveal a surprise cult following (eg. "Firefly," which was canceled in its first season but has a huge following a decade later). If those fans could have paid that money up front, the show never would have been canceled in the first place.
- Original content from more sources. First the networks, then premium cable, and then basic cable channels produced their own series. Now DirecTV, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and other outlets are getting their own original shows.
- Mini-series. For generations, American shows have been locked into generating 20-24 episodes per season. But cable channels are discovering that that number is too expensive and too watered down and have found success with shorter seasons. Six to twelve episodes per year seems more financially and creatively affordable.
- Reality TV is here to stay. Sorry but reality TV is cheap. You don't pay writers, you usually don't build sets, you don't hire actors, you just film and edit. Granted, I like "Survivor" but most reality programming is complete trash.
So, what's on TV for next fall? Ugh. Not much but there could be a few gems amongst the train wrecks.
- NBC is trying to reboot "The Munsters" of all things, called "Mockingbird Lane." I'm not saying this could never work, but wow that seems like scraping the bottom of the barrel.
- We had a couple of our new shows canceled. "Alcatraz" was interesting but not very well done. "Awake" has been fantastic. Good acting and great, deep writing but no audience. Both shows got the axe. I taped and never watched "Terra Nova." It died in its first season also.
- Some older shows got canceled, like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "CSI: Miami," and some old shows ended on their own terms, like "House."
- "Grimm" got renewed, in spite of occupying the often-doomed Friday-Night-Death-Slot, where "genre" shows go to die. Next fall, "Community" will move to Friday as "Grimm"'s lead-in; I think NBC wants to bury that show there.
- Somehow, "The Office" got renewed for one more season. It's too bad more shows don't plan their end better but success leads to "how long can I milk this thing" mentality.
- There's a new show called "Revolution" from J.J. Abrams. Abrams was the reason I watched the disappointing "Alcatraz" but the premise here is a world where electricity "stopped working." If this show can't pass a 9th grade science test I'm gonna have trouble with it.
- Cable channels still know how to avoid the big dogs and air their shows in non-peak slots. Shows like "Mythbusters" and "Deadliest Catch" are barely a month into their current season and others, like "Falling Skies" don't even start until mid-June. They'll all be mostly wrapped up before the fall season (and football) gets under way.