The Winners and Losers of the New Television Landscape

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Even in the so-called digital age, TV remains must-see. The average viewer in the United States watches about 4.5 hours of live TV per day, according to Nielsen. But it seems rarer and rarer that many of us are watching the same thing at the same time. The proliferation of cable channels has led to heavy fragmentation of audiences across niche markets. The popularity of DVRs, now in 40% of American households, means that we can watch last night’s Modern Family whenever we want and, to the horror of TV networks, skip the ads. Meanwhile online platforms like Netflix and Hulu are cutting into our couch-potato time minute by minute.

What does it all mean for television? As with any technological shakekup, there are both winners and losers. Some old TV staples are leveraging our interconnected, digital world for even bigger ratings (and ad dollars), while others are in danger of going extinct. Here’s a quick breakdown of some TV sectors that have performed well in a fragmented world, and others that may no longer be able to stop their audience from changing the channel—or booting up a laptop instead.

On the Rise:

Even as most television genres have sagged in ratings in the past decade, sports—especially football—are seeing unprecedented TV success.  The Super Bowl in February was the most-watched television event of all time, and more than 100 million people tuned in to some portion of the pro football’s week one action earlier this month. It’s not just the NFL though—June’s NBA Finals were the second-most watched ever on ABC, and NBC’s tape-delayed Olympics coverage wildly beat ratings expectations. On cable, ESPN is the most valuable channel in the lineup, with licensing fees costing more than $5 per cable subscriber.  The fragmentation of television is actually bolstering the popularity of the few tentpole broadcast events that still exist.

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‘Social’ Programming 

Those TV programs that get people buzzing on social media, like celebrity-filled awards shows, have seen their ratings climb in the age of Twitter and Facebook. This year the Grammy’s had its largest ratings since 1984, with almost 40 million viewers. It also set a record for social media comments with 13 million, according to Bluefin Labs. Viewership for the Academy Awards was also on the rise in 2012. “These events are now becoming a shared experience,” says Tom Thai, Bluefin’s vice president of marketing. “It’s not just an experience you share with whoever might be in the room, but it’s an experience you can share with friends who are on social media, and in some cases even strangers.” Networks are trying to leverage this connectedness by increasingly focusing on the “second screen”: the laptop, smartphone or tablet that many television viewers use as they’re watching TV. Expect to see more apps roll out that offer ancillary content for your viewing experience, like behind-the-scenes interviews and mobile games.

Shows With Online Back-Catalogues

Anyone with a Netflix subscription has probably spent a weekend or two gorging themselves on back-to-back episodes of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Arrested Development. You might think that this behavior would undercut the traditional tv viewing model, but it turns out that putting old seasons of a show online can actually help its live TV ratings. After its 4th season, all the episodes of AMC’s critical darling Mad Men were put on Netflix. By the time season 5 rolled around this spring, 3.5 million people had watched Season 4 on Netflix and 800,000 had burned through the entire series. That led to a series high in ratings for the season 5 premiere. Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead also saw their ratings climb after they became available on Netflix.

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DVR-Friendly Sitcoms 

After Friends went off the air in 2004, many experts predicted that the death of sitcoms was upon us. In fact, the genre has gotten more varied since that time, with CBS producing mainstream, laugh-track hits like The Big Bang Theory, NBC trotting out an entire Thursday night of quirky comedy anchored by The Office and cable channel FX launching critical favorites like Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. However, the genre’s success can be masked by the way ratings are calculated. Media outlets and networks typically promote overnight ratings, the number of people that viewed a show on the night it was first broadcast. But when DVR viewings over a 7-day period are included, sitcoms thrive. ABC’s sitcom Modern Family was actually the most popular show of the 2011-2012 season among viewers between 18 and 49, gaining more than 3 million delayed viewers each week. Of the top 10 shows in that age range in DVR ratings, 6 are sitcoms.

On the Outs:

Reality TV

Make no mistake—reality TV is cheap, lucrative and a top 10 ratings force. But the days when a reality show could capture massive national attention like the early seasons of Survivor or American Idol may be over. Both shows have been on a ratings slide for years, and no subsequent shows have risen to the same prominence. Like its scripted brethren, the reality TV viewership is fragmenting heavily—Idol, for instance, lost its crown as TV’s most popular show last season because NBC’s The Voice stole some of its audience. CBS, the most-watched television network in primetime for eight of the last nine years, has staked its success on police procedurals and sitcoms. The network only has two reality shows in its primetime lineup this fall (and they’re relics—Survivor and The Amazing Race). Even MTV, which redefined reality raunch twice (with The Real World and Jersey Shore) is increasingly focused on scripted programming. “It gets to a point where the marketplace becomes glutted with [reality shows], people get bored and they stop watching,” says Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of TV Media Insights.

Soap Operas
TIME once called soap operas “TV’s richest market” because they were cheaper to produce than prime time dramas and brought in big advertising revenue. But declining ratings have led many soaps to get axed and replaced with an even cheaper alternative—daytime talk shows. In September programs hosted by Katie Couric, Ricki Lake, Steve Harvey and Jeff Probst all premiered, with Couric predictably pulling in the highest ratings. Meanwhile, with the cancellation of ABC’s “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” only four soaps remain on network television, down from more than a dozen in the genre’s ’70s heyday. Soaps may not have a place in the digital realm either, as plans to move ABC’s cancelled shows online fell through at the end of last  year.

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The News

Television news has to fend off not only all the other channels on the tube but also the myriad of other ways that people consume news in the digital age. Some longtime TV news instiutitons have taken some serious battle wounds—the Today Show has been shedding viewers since Meredith Viera left in the summer of 2011. CNN had its worst month in primetime in 20 years at the start of the summer. Even Fox News, which has been one of the most popular cable channels for years, saw its prime time shows sustain double-digit year-over-year declines in August. For the major networks, shoring up the news divisions is hugely important since they typically bring in huge revenues—Today generated almost half a billion in 2011, while Good Morning America pulled in $300 million. And the long term presents even greater challenges, with a newly released Pew Research Center survey showing that only a fourth of young people watch TV news on a regular basis.