Is Television Dying?

Everyone says cord-cutting is in and no-one buys or watches TV. Really?

Posted Nov 06, 2018

When TV began in earnest after World War II, it was part of a radical shift in how we lived. White GIs and their families benefiting from generous home-loan deals began to populate what quickly became a vast suburban sprawl fanning out from our big cities. The environment was put into a crisis from which it has never recovered, as walking, cycling, and mass transit were displaced in many parts of the country by the private car.

Along the way, television also displaced things—it took over from motion pictures and radio as the principal nighttime and weekend distraction from the daily grind. Downtown cinemas closed their doors and TV repairmen clambered into their vans to keep the ’burbs connected. As television use grew, so did its portion of electricity consumption. This lessened somewhat during the oil crisis of the 1970s when more efficient designs for household goods became a necessity.

Today, everyone seems to be saying TV is dead; that people still watching are being left behind—they’re somehow out of date. We hear that television viewing is a passive, one-way activity and doesn’t engage the youth of today by contrast with putting thumbprints on their smartphones 2,617 times every 24 hours (yes, that’s the average).

Some data support the contention that TV use is declining. Last year, 223 million television sets were sold around the world, a decrease of five million from the year before. But predictions this year are for 236 million sales, and 259 million in 2020. By contrast, the number of smartphones sold globally in the fourth quarter of 2017 was estimated at 408 million—the first time since they came on the market that sales dropped.

Here in the US, Nielsen estimates that 119.6 million homes have TVs. Major growth comes from Latin@, African-American, and Asian households. And despite the palaver about “cord-cutting,” the proportion of television sets receiving signals from broadcast, cable, satellite, or telephony—and, yes, broadband—is 96.5 percent.

There is a change. Some people are watching programs a week or more after they are broadcast, or tuning into Amazon and Netflix, and doing so on other devices. But those viewers are predominantly the young and the affluent—people who have time on their hands by contrast with folks who are busy with family obligations and keeping a job.

Of course, the idea that audiences are freer than ever in terms of choosing what, when, where, and how to watch is appealing. And we’re as keen as the next guy on binge-viewing shows like Goliath and Bosch.

But the cornucopia of gadgets and their uses is also a boon for advertisers and marketers. Never before have they known so much about us. Put another way, the whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever, and however of watching that we celebrate is equally the marketing key to unlocking, selling, and manipulating our choices and placing viewers in the consumer economy—of watching us.

Hence the advent of what Nielsen modestly calls its ‘Nielsen Total Audience’ initiative, which rakes in data from Hulu and YouTube just as much as CBS or Telemundo.

We’re now seeing close to $100 billion a year spent on screen advertising. In order to adapt to people zipping and zapping on their remote-control devices and space bars, neuroscience has been co-opted. It promises to deliver viewers to marketers at cheap rates through compressed TV commercials (fifteen seconds’ duration down from thirty; six seconds down from fifteen). Television still reaches the parts other platforms can’t get to.

And while companies like Comcast and Verizon may be losing cable customers, they are adding internet subscribers in bigger numbers. Comcast is even expanding into Europe’s satellite systems via its purchase of Sky (part of Rupert Murdoch’s fragmenting conglomerate, as he gifts his lesser progeny money rather than responsibility).

And folks are cutting cable because of the cost—not because they no longer watch TV. The change is an economic choice, not about preferring a poor image on a tiny screen to crystal-clear pictures on a large one.

Plus, let’s look back—not very far—to television’s role in the 2016 General Election.

That November surprise is often thought of as a Twitter event. But consider these TV audience figures from the first quarter of 2016 by contrast with the year before: CNN improved 165 percent in prime-time total viewers and 143 percent in the core news demographic of adults ages 25 to 54. Fox News was up 38 percent and 60 percent in those metrics. And MSNBC saw its ratings surge 66 percent and 71 percent respectively. That popularity generated two billion dollars in advertising revenue for the stations, an increase of 15 percent from the year before and 25 percent from the 2012 campaign.

Meanwhile, two of the three Presidential debates set TV ratings records. More than 84 million people watched the first (just three million tweeted about it). On election night itself, over 70 million tuned in during prime time, which was just a hundred thousand below the record figure set on that historic November evening in 2008. CNN easily won the most prime-time viewers.

And the environment with which we began? Suburban living is losing some of its appeal; there is a return to mass transit in cities like Los Angeles, and the latest TV sets are greener in both their manufacturing and energy use than just five years ago. But television still consumes as much power as the peripheral devices attached to it, like video-game consoles.

So television is not dead—but it’s changing before our eyes, so to speak.

In the 1940s, TV sets transformed quite quickly from something expensive and rare to affordable and ubiquitous. Twenty years later, they shifted from black-and-white to color. Another ten years on, and television had transformed from being all broadcast to satellite-driven, and from domination by corporate schedules to being recorded at home. This century, we moved from analog sets to digital ones and started watching television on telephones.

Our habits are changing, too. But not as fast, and not as profoundly, as overheated corporate rhetoric and bar talk might suggest.

For we still like to watch major events—invasions of other peoples’ countries, the Super Bowl, and the Presidential election—on big screens in our homes.

And arthritic thumbs and old eyes are things of the future even more than the present, as life expectancy and smart-phone tapping both increase. The first studies through ‘ultrasonography to assess the effects of smartphone addiction on the clinical and functional status of the hands’ are in, and like testimony from experienced surgeons lamenting the dexterity of the smartphone generation wanting to cut into and stitch up people’s bodies, the results are disturbing.

Maybe, after all, “TV is King.”