TV’s Gravitational Pull in the Digital Universe

Has television “jumped the shark”? Has the medium, as the industry metaphor implies, run its course in a rapidly expanding digital universe? The short answer is no. Despite scores of advanced technologies and new digital media sources, television remains the most popular form of consumer entertainment.

According to a Nielsen report released earlier this spring, the average American household receives a record 104.2 channels–eight more than the year before, and more than double that of a decade ago. Though TV viewing is down slightly this year compared to last, Americans continue to watch at some of the highest levels ever recorded by Nielsen Media Research. Indeed, television consumption eclipses any other medium by a wide margin, and 90% of viewing is still done at home.

Nonetheless, television is changing, and all signs point to even more dramatic alterations ahead, as a confluence of technology, economic forces and social dynamics create what can aptly be described as the medium’s version of a perfect storm. Programmers are investing billions to develop or acquire digital media content. Advertisers are leveraging new technologies to mount ever more sophisticated campaigns. And consumers are becoming adept at moving, manipulating and using content on their own terms.

The ability to convert all forms of information into myriad streams of ones and zeros is dissolving the barriers that have traditionally isolated television from other media. Consequently, companies that never had to compete before are going toe-to-toe to capture audience attention and advertiser dollars.

Today, broadcasters are not only doing battle with conventional rivals like cable operators and satellite TV, but also with Internet sites, telecommunication companies, computer software- and hardware-makers, and consumer-electronic and video-game manufacturers–all providing new means to engage viewers.

Even relatively low-tech print media are entering the fray. Last year, local newspaper sites captured about half of total online video advertising revenue, as publications of all stripes have begun requiring reporters to provide video feeds to their Web sites along with stories written for print editions.

Improvements in digital technology have markedly enhanced the capabilities of video cameras, making them smaller, easier and far less expensive to use. At the same time, the increasing ubiquity of broadband has engendered widespread downloading and uploading of video clips across an array of devices. The upshot is that just about anyone can become a video producer with the potential to reach, literally, millions of viewers around the world. A generation of technology-savvy consumers is taking full advantage of the opportunity in ways that were unimaginable just a short time ago.

This course of change, however, is not unique to television. Nor to the 21st century. The history of media is a chronicle of innovation, during which each new system has built on the technology platforms and business models of its predecessors. In fact, television is part of a long lineage of communication systems that dates back to the telegraph, and includes the telephone and radio.

These developments basically occurred one medium at a time and were the results of decades of interactive, interwoven processes. But the global digital network has made such collaboration immediate and ongoing, and, for the first time, it is having a direct effect on multiple media.

Yet the current pace of change is uneven. For every “early adopter” who has embraced DVRs, iPods and YouTube, there are scores of “couch potatoes” who still prefer to plant themselves in front of the TV the old-fashion way. Other variables such as age, gender, ethnicity and geography require the industry to find new ways to deliver content to, and measure its impact upon, viewers who will increasingly decide for themselves when, where and how to watch television.

No doubt new digital technologies are altering the television environment. Time-shifting systems like digital video recorders and video on demand are amplifying TV viewing in the home, while place-shifting devices such as Slingbox and video iPods expand the medium’s reach by essentially transforming any digital platform with a broadband connection into a television set.

For their part, smarter, more-discriminating and more-demanding viewers are challenging the television industry to reinvent itself continually. In response, companies will continue to collide and converge to effectively meet the wants and needs of anywhere/anytime/any-way consumers.

Ultimately, television will become different things to different people. But it will remain a vital part of their communication experience.

Susan Whiting is chairman of Nielsen Media Research and executive vice president of The Nielsen Company.