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Watching TV is different experience today

Akron Beacon Journal

Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 11:02

AKRON, Ohio - How we watch television keeps changing. It's not only that people are recording shows for viewing later. It's that they can call up the shows from on-demand channels, or watch them on their laptops, phones or tablets.

And our viewing opportunity does not end there. Beyond the shows that have broadcast or cable bases, there is the array of created-for-online video, from big-name productions like the sketches on the Funny Or Die website to the bazillions of cat videos on YouTube.

Nielsen studies include not only who's watching what, but also in what form and combinations; for example, more than 70 percent of women using tablets like the iPad will check their email on the tablet while watching a TV show. The 30 million people watching mobile video on a smart phone are most likely to watch YouTube, Nielsen estimates.

The situation recalls the days when cable was on the rise and a broadcast executive likened it to being nibbled to death by sharks. No one alternative might have drawn a big audience, but the cumulative effect was devastating.

Now even the sharks, it seems, have sharks - some with names like iTunes and Netflix and Amazon On Demand, all making streaming video of movies and TV shows available to consumers.

And frankly, viewers like the sharks. The rise of online and on-demand viewing has given individual viewers more choices and more control over them.

If, for example, you love the commercials in the Super Bowl but don't want to sit through the game, you may find the ads online, some before the game ever airs. Late last week, two of the most talked-about ads, a Honda spot with Matthew Broderick and one for Acura with Jerry Seinfeld, had each been watched more than 8 million times.

NBC put the first episode of "Smash," its new Monday-night series, on its website days before this week's premiere - and several industry insiders said that online is an effective way to bring an audience to a new show.

But certain issues linger. A big one is how a traditional TV programmer in broadcast or cable can survive in a world where programs are available from other sources in relatively rapid fashion, particularly a new generation of viewers accustomed to trolling the Internet.

One of the solutions has been to embrace and exploit other delivery systems. Time Warner Cable, for example, has an app that makes programming available through iPads and iPhones and expects to expand that to Android systems in 2012; even now, Android users can use the app to schedule recordings by their cable boxes.

Among traditional broadcasters, ABC, NBC and Fox all make episodes of programs available online through their own sites and Hulu; CBS uses its own website and its online CBS Audience Network.

But is there money to be made from such efforts, or from any of the growing technological alternatives?

Netflix, for example, has pushed ever more aggressively into streaming video (and infuriated customers when it tried to offer streaming and DVD-by-mail rental as separately priced services instead of a single package). But Advertising Age noted that streaming has far less potential profit than DVDs, with shorter rights deals for streaming; the publication estimated that one DVD subscriber was as profitable as four or five streaming subscribers combined.

Hulu, famous for offering programs for free, has added a pay tier. Online videos from networks now routinely include commercials (and do not let you skip them); some on-demand channels disable the fast-forward function so you have to sit through the ads.

All these changes may require rethinking of what a program distributor has to provide. There is no question that networks, stations and other programmers are getting ever more into social media. And broadcasters may focus on big events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, enhance them with local programming and let less-watched shows go elsewhere - if those local shows can get financed.

As big as that question is, it is far from the only one.

What will happen to viewers who do not have computers, let alone online access, as the programming world looks past them? Cable changed the way broadcasters operated, shoving certain kinds of programs to the viewing margins. Online often promises content above and beyond what a basic telecast offers; those Super Bowl commercials I mentioned aired in a longer form online than they did on TV Sunday night.

What will a program designed to be seen both on a big screen and a tiny one look like? Technology does affect content. In the old days of TV, close-ups were more common, because the screens were small and the pictures often blurry.

And what will be our relationship as viewers to the programs of the new video age, and to each other? The ancient idea of communal viewing went by the boards as TV sets multiplied in homes and channels proliferated. You've undoubtedly seen people in a restaurant booth, each on his or her phone, and the siren lure of product on phones will get louder. What will become of dialogue when there is always, literally, a TV screen at hand?

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(c)2012 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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