Not only is the traditional TV schedule not dead, it may not even be sick. And believe it or not, the Internet may be why.
That isn't what you hear from most media analysts. Growing PVR penetration rates and growth in Internet video are leading to predictions that traditional TV networks' schedules are irrelevant. In 21st century mediaspeak, TV is moving from a "push" medium to a "pull" medium, and the broadcasters are doomed.
As a viewer, you may not care. But for broadcasters, the power of push matters a lot.
When we stick to the TV schedule, all sort of things happen. Popular shows can provide a lead-in to shows that haven't yet found their audience. Similar programming can be grouped together on the same night to provide a consistent market to advertisers. Perhaps most importantly, a network can promote the heck out of the rest of its schedule by showing ads earlier in the evening.
Some people wonder why a Canadian broadcaster spent a lot of money on an American game show and put it on at 7:30. For example, most of what I know about CBC's The Republic of Doyle (aside from what I read from Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle) I learned from watching the promos during Jeopardy! If nobody watched TV shows according to the schedule, that would be bad for CBC and every other broadcaster around the world. How big a problem is that today?
As I have discussed in previous columns, PVRs aren't as big of a factor as you might think. Although almost 25 per cent of Canadian homes have PVRs, only 4 per cent of all TV is watched off the schedule. That number is higher in the US (more PVRs) but still only about 7 per cent in February 2011. Streaming video is growing quickly. But even Netflix, the most successful service, is only a drop in the video bucket: Americans watched almost 46 billion hours of TV in February, and Netflix was only about 60 million hours, or a bit more than 0.1 per cent.
Aha…but what about demographics, you cry. Surely the youth of today are not the slaves to the schedule that their parents are?
True. According to a Deloitte media survey we conducted in Canada (and around the world) late last year, younger viewers are much less likely to follow the schedule. 76 per cent of Canadians aged 45-75 said that their favourite method of watching their favourite shows was live on their home TV, and only 48 per cent of those 14-27 said the same.
While there are technological and demographic forces moving viewers away from the schedule, there is another force moving them back toward simultaneous linear TV consumption. And it is called social media.
Across all forms of programming today, large audiences are watching TV and - in real time - kibitzing about the shows with either friends or total strangers. They are doing it on Twitter, Skype, BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook. We don't have numbers for all social channels (most instant message stats are not publicly available) but there is some good data out there from Twitter and from broadcasters.
I was talking with Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO of CBC last week about the power of the schedule. He had been in Sydney, Nova Scotia with a large group of viewers. They were talking about Republic of Doyle (set in Newfoundland, if you didn't know) and he asked how many watched it on their PVRs. "None of us do," came the reply "we're all from St. John's. We watch it at the same time and chat about it online."
Maybe that's just a Canadian - or perhaps Newfoundland - thing?
At the SXSW media conference in Austin in March, a panel on social TV talked about the same phenomenon. Chloe Sladden from Twitter showed a chart of the dramatic rise in Twitter traffic for Jersey Shore on the day and time it was broadcast. Not a fan of that kind of that show? Check out the Twitter traffic for this year's Super Bowl: the tweets exactly match the ebb and flow of the game, reaching a peak of over 4000 tweets per second! At one time, prior to the internet and the 500 channel universe, TV was a water cooler that brought us together. We watched the moon landings and the finale of M*A*S*H collectively. Like the pre-historical communal fire that the tribe gathered around, TV was a shared and sharing experience.
It is a horrible word, but social media is acting today as a force that is "re-linearizing" TV. I am not sure that it is stronger than the forces pulling in the opposite direction - the phenomenon is too new and too hard to quantify. But I think it will be the most important TV trend of this decade.
Update: This article has been corrected. We initially reported almost 50 per cent of Canadian homes have PVRs (rather than the correct number, which is 25 per cent) and only 3 per cent (rather than 4 per cent) of all TV is watched off the schedule.