Image: Geoff Stokes
Image: Geoff Stokes

Despite the endless agonizing it seems to inspire, the idea that cultural institutions are subject to anything so final as death is really sort of comforting. The reality of the situation is that changes that move culture tend to take too mercurial and gradual a form to warrant speaking of “the death of print” or “the death of punk.” More often, they are changed from within by the galvanic pressures of shifts in technology or economics.

Take for example the classic model of network television. To judge by the prognostications of the last several decades, it has been on the verge of death since the early days of the internet. Despite that long-term morbidity, network remains very much alive, still able to draw huge numbers of viewers.

It’s able to do so in part because it has adapted to the time, albeit reluctantly. Yet more changes will be necessary. One factor in its ongoing evolution is the continuing expansion of technologies that allow viewers to watch network programming on their own schedule and with more control over the flow of that programming.

On NPR’s Morning Edition, for example, Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter dubbed 2012 “the year of the DVR.” Devices for recording and replaying television shows are saturating the market. That’s had a paradoxical effect on network. “One of the big beneficiaries of that is the breakout show Revolution on NBC,” Masters explains.

It went up about 13 percent if you add three days after for people to watch on the DVR. And it went up over 65 percent if you add seven days.

In the past, that sort of increased viewership would have been an unqualified positive for television, but DVRs complicate the situation. That’s because network has traditionally paid for itself with an economic model that charges for advertising based on viewership as estimated by ratings systems like Nielsen’s. The question that arises when those ratings depend in part on delayed viewing has to do with whether or not those late viewers are sitting through the commercials. The possibility that they’re fast-forwarding through them or editing them out altogether throws a wrench in the economic model that pays for high-end network programming.

The genie can’t be stuffed back into the bottle. So while network likely won’t be killed outright by the year of the DVR—not to mention other services that allow viewers to set the terms of their viewing— changes are on the horizon. Based on the current state of technology and commerce, here are a few probabilities:

1. Less writing

Narrative shows in particular, have been thrown into a precarious position by technological advancements. For one thing, they tend to be costlier than other types of programming. For another, they’re less time-sensitive than other types of programming. Sporting events, for example, remain a significant draw for network television, in no small part because viewers will go out of a way to catch a game at air time if they can.

Those two factors represent a dual thread to scripted, narrative television. Their time-independent nature means that people are willing to watch them later, which undermines the network’s ability to pay the higher costs of production. One strategy for off-setting that cost is to produce scripted shows that seem more time-sensitive. Lost was a success in part because it was built to make viewers fearful of spoilers. The show’s nimble mix of addictive melodrama and easy-to-ruin weirdness meant that fans were reluctant to miss the original airtime. But that’s a difficult formula to repeat, and producer J.J. Abrams most recent project, Revolution, is much more vulnerable to the threat of delayed viewing.

Assuming the networks can’t find a model for scripted shows that draw viewers in at airtime, one alternative is to rely more on time-sensitive shows. The other is to simply look for cheaper alternatives. The cheapest of the lot tend to be reality television and prime-time contest shows.

Hope you like The Voice and Honey Boo Boo. They might well be the future.

2. Product placement

If networks can’t ensure that viewers are at least letting commercials run, they might try to compensate by integrating the commercials into the shows themselves. That’s a delicate line to tread. Of course, the networks have rarely been particularly focused on the artistic value of their shows, but even so, product placement tends to be so glaring and crass that few have relied on it for fear of driving away viewers.

Nor have past examples of product placement been terribly encouraging. The much lamented Arrested Development turned to Burger King to help shore up its losses toward the end of its last full season. To make it more palatable, the writers played up the placement as a joke. The infusion of cash may have kept the show running into a third season, but ultimately failed to save it. It’s hardly surprising that the show’s upcoming revival is being bankrolled by the newer model of streaming, rather than network broadcast.

The short-lived Dana Carvey Show also turned to prominent product placement to make up losses for its flailing ratings. Which may suggest that product placement is a poor bet when it comes to saving already failing shows, but that might not stop network executives from using it to prop up the sort of fare that generally does well on network.

3. Putting commercials into DVRs

Giving up on the mostly solid distinction between programming and advertising may not be the solution at all. One potential way to get around the problem is by changing the DVR model, rather than the economic model of network. If providers can find a way to pin sponsorship to shows, even when divorced from their usual time slot, it might be possible to salvage commercial television after all.

As it turns out, some are already looking into this possibility. Earlier this year, DailyTech reported that Time Warner had submitted a patent that would disable the functionality that allows viewers to skip commercials. Given the growing ubiquity of other platforms, though, it’s difficult to put any real confidence in this method. It’s more likely that the technological changes that have already taken place will reshape network television than that network will find a way to perpetuate its model across all those new platforms.

4. Adaption to the subscription model

Network still draws significantly larger crowds than cable, but it may be that cable channels are better adapted to survive in the evolving technological landscape. To that end, the networks might decide to take their cues from cable.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the cable model will assimilate the old networks. Remember, the networks can still command market share by providing time-sensitive and dirt-cheap programming. But it may mean that the networks diversify a bit, shifting their more prestigious or costly programming to new platforms.

To some degree, they’ve already done so by penning deals with streaming sites like Hulu. To the extend that networks continue producing scripted, narrative programming, it’s reasonable to expect them to concentrate those shows on platforms that allow them to recoup their expenses, even if that means making them more scarce on the television channels themselves.

Chances are, though, that no single strategy will prevail. After all, there are enough television networks to afford a diversity of strategies, and some will no doubt work better for some channels than they do for others. The drama consists of tuning in each week to see what, in the end, each will become. The only guarantee is that it’s bound to be something different than what they were.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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