The death of television: impossible or inevitable?

Examining current trends in television watching

Ayame Ulrich

The way you watch television may be about to change. That is, if it hasn’t already.

For people like Andrew Parker, television programming is becoming increasingly disassociated from the physical television set.

“To say that I don’t watch a lot of TV is very misleading, because I watch tons, but none of it is on a black box live, it’s all uploaded online a couple hours after the fact,” Parker says.

For Parker, who studies media production in the joint Creative Communications program at Red River College and the University of Winnipeg, this is more than an interesting bit of introspection - it’s a game changer when it comes to his job prospects after graduation.

“There’s a lot more variety in our options now,” Parker says. “Whereas before you go to school and you end up working at one of the five (TV) stations in Winnipeg, today there is so much more freelance stuff going on.”

This shift within the industry appears to be a response to a trend among Canadians.

“More of us are watching more television online,” says Sidneyeve Matrix, assistant professor in the department of media and film at Queen’s University.

This fact does not necessarily herald the end of TV as we know it, Matrix says. While fear kept many traditional TV providers from acknowledging the online trend for many years, things are changing.

“The television industry is responding to the culture of torrenting in a way that the movie industry and the music industry did not,” Matrix says. “We have some industry leaders like CTV and CBC that are showing us how you can monetize that online viewing audience.”

Far from avoiding advertising by watching streaming video or illegally downloading bit-torrents of television programming, Internet TV viewers are creating new advertising opportunities for content creators through methods largely pioneered by sites like YouTube, Matrix says.

Even more important, however, is that online viewers are not necessarily avoiding live TV.

“It’s not about displacement,” says Matrix. “I think it’s about a complementarity.”

This is also the position of Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada director of research for technology, media and telecommunications and co-author of the Deloitte Canada TMT (technology, media and telecommunications) Predictions 2012.

That report predicts that in 2012, 95 per cent of television content viewed by Canadians will be live or within 24 hours of broadcast. Stewart says the reason for this is simple: people are lazy.

“There’s an awful lot of inertia in traditional television watching,” Stewart says. “Most people don’t want to watch what they want when they want. Most people are more than happy to turn on the TV and watch what’s on.”

If 95 per cent still seems quite high, Stewart points to the kinds of programs that typically warrant live viewing.

“The overall bulk of television is still things like news, sports, weather, reality TV and awards shows, things that are big draws with huge reach and many, many hours,” Stewart says. “And those are the ones that are still watched live.”

One of the big draws to live television is what Matrix calls social TV, where people use social media, and especially Twitter, to discuss television events in real-time. This requires everyone to be watching the same thing at the same time.

The television industry is responding to the culture of torrenting in a way that the movie industry and the music industry did not.

Sidneyeve Matrix, assistant professor, Queen’s University

She says the recent Golden Globes were a perfect example.

“People say, ‘I’m not even watching but I know everything about it,’” Matrix says. “Fandom becomes citizen reportage at that moment.

“When television networks are deeply invested in social media, that can actually drive viewership because it will enable their audience to share information about their TV consumption habits.”

While social media represents a potential ally for traditional TV, torrents pose perhaps the most serious threat - especially since they lead to what Matrix calls the season binge, in which all the episodes in one or several seasons of a particular TV show are watched back-to-back.

“It’s the most amazing lean-back experience, you just have all your seasons, you just need some snacks and you’re good to go for the next 500 hours,” Matrix says. “It’s a beloved consumption habit. It has everything to do with torrents.”

While Matrix thought that TV and movie subscription services like Netflix would be wildly popular among her students, she says the cost and convenience of torrent downloads cannot be beat among the 18 to 34 demographic.

“There was no enthusiasm whatsoever for Netflix amongst the students that I teach,” Matrix says. “Why? Because of torrenting.”

Whatever the fate of TV as we know it, Creative Communications student Parker says the shifting local industry makes his education all the more important.

“The equipment that is available to just everyday people is amazing now. Everyone is an expert and everyone has the latest technology,” Parker says. “That’s why we’re going to school. Hopefully once we’re out of this program we’ll have the training that separates us from every third person on the Internet that has an excellent camera.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 25, 2012)

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