More and more, television executives are turning to a higher authority to determine what, when and how they broadcast: YOU.
Once upon a time, not that long ago — Feb. 28, 1983, to be exact — 106 million Americans tuned in to CBS, one of the three major television networks at the time, to watch the swan song of the long-running television series M*A*S*H, which became the most-watched finale of any show ever.
Three decades later, more people than ever are watching television, but fewer of them do so on the boob tube proper. Even the most popular show of the last television season — CBS’ NCIS — attracted a season average of only 21.3 million viewers. The rest of the viewership was fragmented among other network-television programming, powerhouse cable fare, DVD and DVR options and streaming-video-on-demand (SVOD) originals like Netflix’s House of Cards, which recently captured an Emmy for best directing in a drama series — the first time an online streaming original program has taken a major category.
“We are not in Kansas anymore,” says TV Guide editor-in-chief and president Debra Birnbaum. “The world of TV couldn’t have changed any more than it has. Except that it will.”
Indeed, while the commercial fortunes of a television series once were strictly measured by 5,000 American families recording their nightly viewing habits to formulate a national estimate called the Nielsen ratings, which programming executives then pored over like they were holy texts, the last decade has seen a sea change in the world of television. Consumer market research firm NPD Group reports that there was a 34 percent spike last year in viewers who watched their favorite shows online, on computers, tablets, phones, gaming consoles or other SVOD devices. That number is certain to increase, perhaps exponentially, in the coming years.
“People want to watch what they want, when they want and how they want,” Birnbaum says. “We don’t make Thursday-night appointments to sit in our living rooms and watch a show like Friends anymore, at least not often. It’s all about choice and options.”
From a quality perspective, the fragmentation of television viewership is widely considered a positive thing. In the analog days of television, the yardstick for commercial success was attracting one-third of the available viewing audience, resulting in shows that were decidedly middle of the road. Today, when a cable network like AMC can satisfy its bottom line with 2.9 million viewers for a show like Breaking Bad, with significant additional viewership via DVD and SVOD, there is room for far-more-adventurous fare.