I write a television column. I have two TiVos. I have set these TiVos with Season Passes for 26 programs. I follow at least 10 other shows on a less TiVo-formalized basis. I can wax rhapsodic about television classics from six decades (thanks to reruns, I’m not THAT old, thank you). And I confessed last week in this space to an addiction to Hulu.com. So I think it’s safe to say that I like TV. A lot. Probably too much. Oh, hell, let’s be honest: There is no “probably.” I watch too much television. Which is why the broadcast networks should be worried.
You see, over the last two weeks, most network programs have returned from their strike-imposed hiatuses. But I haven’t returned to my pre-strike viewing habits. Not yet, anyway. I currently have sitting on my TiVo two episodes of one of my favorite new comedies, “Samantha Who?”, along with new offerings of “My Name is Earl,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “South Park” and “Back to You.” And it’s taken me far longer than usual to get to many other shows, days or even weeks after their air dates, stretching the industry concept of “time shifting” to its limits.
In February, as the strike took hold, I wrote about how the short-sighted approach of the broadcast networks and their inability to adapt to the changing media landscape had already weakened the traditional bond between viewers and television, even before the impasse with the writers hit, and how the studios’ decision to nickel and dime the writers, resulting in the disappearance of scripted programming for months, had given viewers yet another reason to get out of the habit of watching network programs. What I never imagined is that I would fall prey to the same pitfall.
After months of getting out of the habit of watching a nightly load of network offerings, it’s been hard for me to get back into the swing of things. Part of me even liked the dearth of programming, feeling like a pressure to watch had been lifted off of my back. (Well, not completely. I still wait for Monday nights and “How I Met Your Mother” like a kid hoping for his birthday to arrive faster, and Thursdays still don’t come quickly enough with new episodes of “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Scrubs.”) It’s hard to write this, but aside from my Mount Rushmore of sitcoms, I have found the influx of new programming to be a bit annoying, actually. Like a friend that deserted you but then returned and demanded your attention, meanwhile, you got to see what life was like without the responsibilities of the friendship. I liked having the extra time at night.
Surely, if I, an admitted television junkie, am experiencing these emotions, it stands to reason that casual viewers are checking out, too. And the ratings seem to be reflecting this trend. I noticed that juggernauts like “Desperate Housewives” and “American Idol” have not been immune. Last Sunday’s return of the women of Wisteria Lane garnered ratings below the soap’s pre-strike level, and the numbers for the “Idol” charity edition fell far short of last season’s version.
I fully admit that the time of year could have something to do with it. For decades, Americans have been trained to ride a February-to-May, sweeps-to-sweeps, run of new episodes, leading to a June-to-September break for the summer. When shows disappeared in February (and they did disappear, with new programming, mostly reality shows, taking their spots instead of reruns), and the calendar went deep into April with no new episodes, we, as an audience, slid firmly into summer mode. It’s like we told ourselves we were done with TV until September. Asking us to check back in now, knowing that the end of the season is only weeks away, might have been too much for our delicate inner television time clocks to handle. Maybe next fall, when new series and new episodes of existing programs appear as they do every year, viewers will fall back into their regular habits and watch.
But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. There will always be a demand for content, but there are no guarantees that any one content delivery system will maintain its dominance. The networks dominated the media landscape for more than 50 years but have faced an erosion more recently, with ratings far below those achieved 20, 10 or even five years ago. It’s hard to say where the floor is for the networks. There is a generation being raised as I type this that thinks of television as something the user controls the timing of, whether its via a DVR or watching online. The concept of Must See TV is evaporating, at least in terms of Must Seeing it at a time and location designated by the broadcaster.
It would have taken a kind of visionary and bold leadership to ride out the technological and social evolutions that threatened the traditional power held by the networks, but instead the reaction was to try and save every rating point in the present with no apparent plan for the long-term future. And nowhere was this lack of leadership more apparent than when the networks allowed a strike to happen at a time when they were already in trouble. It will be interesting to see down the road if the interruption of this season will be viewed as a kind of turning point, a fundamental shift in the power and reach of the networks. Not necessarily the television version of the Napster moment for the music industry, but a new paradigm, and not a better one, nonetheless.
As for me, while I embrace new media (just ask anyone who is waiting on me to do anything while I’m watching yet another episode of “Studio 60” on Hulu.com), I am a traditionalist at heart. I have, for example, desperately held on to the notion of the traditional sitcom, even as they become nearly as antiquated as the Betamax. I even write a blog that looks more like a newspaper column than something cutting edge you might see online. So it is likely that when the networks let loose with their new programming in the fall, I’ll be there, TiVo remote in hand, ready to record a chunk of the schedule.
A week after I published this column, the New York Times ran an interesting article on the declining ratings of hit one-hour dramas returning from their post-strike hiatuses (including "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "House"). You can read it here. No matter how you spin it, the strike has disrupted television viewing habits this spring. Only time will tell if the damage is more long-term.