Editorial: TV changes are well overdue

Published 9:25 am Wednesday, May 23, 2012


There are new viewing habits forming in the world of television, and they come as no surprise.

For cable viewers sick and tired of skyrocketing prices (ahem, while the newspaper still costs 50 cents), there is some good news.

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No, the price of cable isn’t going down.

But network and cable TV ratings are reeling this spring, and though there are varied reasons, a major one is that cable is pricing itself out of the market.

Cable companies are in a squeeze. Viewers blame the cable companies, but the reason for the high prices is that the channels with the most demand, such as sports channels, force them to pay hefty fees to be in cable packages. Moreover, the owners of retransmitted content such as old movies and TV reruns are charging the channels more and more, too. The cable market is like a shark-infested inflation whirlpool, and in the end, the customer is losing.

The demographic that TV advertisers want most to reach is young adults. Yet young adults cannot afford cable and find their Internet connection more valuable. So they are subscribing to low-cost on-demand content-streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu or else entertaining themselves on Facebook, YouTube and other social networks. The same goes for many families who either cannot afford cable television or are thrifty with their entertainment dollars. On Netflix, they don’t get as much new stuff, but they can, for instance, watch every episode of the first season of their favorite sitcom — at their convenience.

And for people who can afford cable, many more viewers are not watching shows and movies when programmers broadcast them. They watch them at their convenience and zip through commercials.

Together, automated recorders and web-streaming providers are causing TV ratings to drop, and the New York Times has penned a few stories on how they are dropping especially this spring.

People heard much in the news about the status at newspapers as a result of the Internet, largely because newspapers aren’t afraid to cover themselves and because Americans seem to view newspapers as integral to communities. (People don’t submit five-generation photos to the TV stations.)

But changes in the way people consume other media show that all forms of media face change. In fact, media change is almost the norm because technology is changing so swiftly.

So what should the TV and cable networks do?

Get the A.C. Nielsen ratings company to throw out the sweeps months, for starters. Who in sunny May catches new episodes after being dragged through reruns during rainy April?

It’s because the entire TV world revolves around four sets of weeks near four months of the year — approximately February, May, July and November — simply because back when ratings relied on surveys sent through the mail, sorting them all was labor-intensive.

Yet sweeps today are done electronically and immediately, though the surveys are still in use, too. More notably, sweeps are used to set advertising rates for local advertisers, not the national ones.

Local advertisers, as a result, pay a rate based on 16 good-viewing weeks of the year even when the programming they are buying ads with might be lacking viewers. Some call it a bait-and-switch. And local advertisers lack the clout to change the system.

But finally with a change in viewing habits, some TV experts are saying the sweeps system could be doomed. When that happens, viewers and advertisers would rejoice. Some who remember the early days of television might recall how new programming was aired year-round. Perhaps something closer to that could happen.

As for cable prices, the same TV experts are saying that the future of television is not on cable. It’s on the Internet. Some say viewers might finally get the a la carte service — pay for only the channels they want — they have wanted for decades.

Keeping prices down for the consumer should be the goal of any media executive.