I’ve had a post in draft for weeks. It was going to wonder aloud about whether or not US TV ratings would recover from the ongoing writers’ strike. The strike has seen hit shows grind to a halt, the Golden Globes reduced to a press conference and – most scandalous of all – a US presidential primaries campaign pass without a Daily Show to lampoon its many absurdities (it’s back now, although weaker for not having its usual team of writers).
The strike is all about writers getting some of the money made online from new distribution channels such as video downloads. There’s an irony there, because you have to imagine that this strike, combined with those ongoing trends towards on-demand entertainment via the internet, DVD and Tivo, could prove devastating to the conventional broadcast TV that makes the serious money.
Faced with strike-hit schedules full of dull repeats and unscripted reality shows, viewers are doing other things. They’re turning off the broadcast TV. They’re developing habits which, in a rapidly changing world, may not be undone. After all, it’s rare people are offered choice and then volunteer to hand it back.
What was holding me back from finishing that drafted post was an apparent complete lack of data about changing habits. It seemed to be the question nobody, with the odd well-hidden exception, was talking about.
Well, that’s changed in the last few days. The numbers are finally in, and its bad news for networks. More than a third of Americans have changed their media consumption habits because of the strike, with the heaviest TV users being hardest hit – and making the biggest changes. They’re watching DVDs. They’re surfing the net. They are – Good God! – reading more.
While this World Screen report tries to paint a positive picture – saying the strike makes scripted hit shows even more important – they leave the most telling line to the end.
Michael Dowling, the CEO of Interpret, [says]: “As top shows disappear from prime time, viewers may go back and view critically-lauded TV series they missed the first time around, play more video games or watch more movies on DVD. Interpret’s past research has demonstrated that consumers’ media habits are already splintered, and the strike is accelerating those changes.” [my emphasis]
There. Habits were already “splintered” – the much heralded atomisation of media, and its consumption, has already hit TV, just as it has print and radio.
Now, a third of viewers may not sound like a great deal. But the US is a big country, and US TV producers seem to lose their jobs over pretty tiny shifts in audience figures. If even one percent of the US population doesn’t get back to its former levels of viewing – or even just changes the way it views TV – it seems to me you’ve got a problem.
Opinion is divided on what happens next. Robert J Elisberg, writing in the HuffPost, suggests the networks will fold because there’s just too much money at stake. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the networks are rattling sabres too – NBC boss Jeff Zucker is already talking of a revolution in the lavish ways US television is made, largely because of the opportunity the strike has afforded networks to cancel contracts and change the way things are done.
That revolution may happen whatever the outcome of this strike. It’s hard to imagine that revolution won’t come to the UK too, even if the BBC finds itself with higher barricades than most because of its public funding. Although even that’s not entirely secure, it seems.
Either way, it’s hard to imagine this strike not having a huge and lasting impact on the production and ratings of traditional network television.