Who Controls Television Viewing Behavior?

In the pre-cable world of the 1960s, the television networks controlled viewing by devising a strategy of "least objectional programming." The theory was simple: put your strongest show on first thing in the evening and do nothing that would cause someone to get up out of their chair, walk to the TV set, and change channels. As remote controls began to proliferate along with cable television, the strategy (at least on paper) would seem to have reached the end of its life, but the change was very gradual, an evolutionary change.

Article after article was written calling the big three commercial networks dinosaurs, and yet they continued to grab 80% of the primetime audience. The VCR came in as a potentially disruptive technology, but thanks to poor usability design, its impact on television viewing was geberally limited to movie watching and some extension of the audience for soap operas (the most frequently recorded genre). People could have bought VCP (videocassette players) but they didn't catch on in the home market. Nevertheless, recording or time-shifting never came close to living up to its potential of giving the viewer more control of their television viewing.

Blockbuster television shows like Seinfeld, Home Improvement, Friends, West Wing, and others had people continue "appointment viewing." If you've ever been with someone who said "I gotta go, my show is coming on at 8," then you know what appointment viewing is. In addition, top shows remained fodder for the water cooler at work the next day. Television was still a communal experience in that sense, and there was something inherently "comforting" about that experience. If the network moved one of these programs to another day or time, the audience would follow. What choice did they have? We've already established that at best a minute fraction of VCR owners actually used their VCRs to time shift programming.

Incredibly, in the mid 1990s, television viewing in the United States had not changed dramatically with the exception of the progress of the cable television industry in providing more and more attractive program alternatives. All news channels took their toll on network TV news, but the network newscast remains today much as it looked 25 years ago.

What would happen if suddenly television viewers could take control of their television viewing? What if appointment viewing were replaced by a "black box" that would record a viewer's favorite shows no matter when they aired, no matter what channel the shows were aired, and all the viewer had to do was press a couple of buttons on a remote to find "their" shows. What if it were a "smart" box that could also find different shows that in some way matched or were similar to ones the viewer had chosen to be recorded? What if two competing shows on at the same time on different channels could be recorded simultaneously?

If you understand the previous paragraph, then you also understand that television viewing behavior might be changed dramatically. If the time and channel on which a program airs becomes irrelevant to the viewer, then you can see a possible upending of the broadcasting/cable model from one in which the program provider decides when to air a show to a model in which the viewer chooses when she wants to watch that show.

You may use this content (better still, argue with me!), but please cite my ideas as © 2006, Dr. Bruce Klopfenstein. Best viewed in Firefox thanks to Microsoft going its own way.


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