Technology means less good TV

By Frazier Moore

There’s so much out there to watch, network TV is losing viewers.

NEW YORK — Hey you, media consumer. You used to be a TV watcher. But an excess of choices has left you changed — and perhaps spoiled.

Also overwhelmed. There’s just too much to keep up with. New media outlets are spreading you thin.

No wonder the 27 series that premiered last fall on the traditional broadcast networks, and all their new shows after that, struggled to win your support. None of the freshmen series was a hit. And nearly 9 percent of prime-time viewers went missing from the year before.

That’s the 2007-08 season in a nutshell for ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW, even as they bravely forge ahead.

“Network television is good, it’s strong, it’s still the best game in town,” CBS boss Les Moonves told advertisers last month as he unveiled his network’s 2008-09 lineup.

The best game, maybe. But there’s another game in play throughout the industry, a game of diminished expectations, which ruefully expresses the best-case scenario as: “‘Level’ is the new ‘up.”’

Sure, one reason for the networks’ audience erosion is the 100-day Hollywood writers strike that disrupted production, made hash of schedules and reminded viewers there are other things to do than watch network TV. Now an actors strike looming at the end of this month could compound the damage.

But be honest: Your loyalty to broadcast TV was fraying anyway, wasn’t it? Media alternatives proliferate and dazzle. You’ve got DVDs, Webcasts, video on demand, iPod downloads and computer games, not to mention dozens of cable channels catering to you with more and more specificity.

And even when you settle on a show from the conventional broadcast networks, you’ve got newfangled options. You can stash it on your DVR. Or stream it from the network’s Web site. It’s available to watch whenever you want.

But with this crushing media burden, will you get around to this stuff at all?

To paraphrase the syntax-mangling movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn: If you aren’t checking out a network’s shows, nobody can stop you. But the networks haven’t given up as quickly as they once did.

Many of the overlooked 2007-08 freshman series will be back next fall. Any other year they would have likely been axed, but the chaos of the writers strike helped win them reprieves. This season has an asterisk beside it; the networks would love a do-over. (Note how ABC renewed five of its 11 rookie series, including marginal performers like “Eli Stone” and “Dirty Sexy Money.”)

But chances are, an asterisk awaits next season, and the next, reflecting the volatile new world in which TV finds itself, an emerging world where the term “TV viewer” is antique, where you’ve been reborn as “media consumer.”

It’s a world where television is just one of many “media platforms.” Where TV shows have become “content” (accent on the first syllable), and further denatured as an “asset.”

Hear the pep talk from NBC boss Ben Silverman: “We know you need to activate against our entertainment platforms to help build your brand messages, and to leverage and use the cultural institutions that are hallmarks of the NBC network.”

Did he lose you there? Silverman, a 37-year-old media wunderkind, was addressing advertisers to tout NBC’s response to the multimedia age: “leveraging the scale of broadcast while harnessing the power of digital.”

NBC isn’t alone. Next season on CBS’ veteran trio of “CSI” dramas, episodes will be designed to move you beyond your TV screen, enhancing the episodes’ narratives across supplementary media like online, mobile, even video games (while exposing you to more channels of advertising).

Are you getting excited about TV next season? The networks are excited for you!

The CW is thrilled to be reviving the long-ago Fox hit, “Beverly Hills 90210.”

Fox plans a spinoff of “Family Guy.”

NBC is spinning off “The Office” and retooling “Knight Rider” from a quarter-century ago.

But after four years and counting, the 2004-05 season stands tall for its towering successes. Premiering that season were the delightfully unfamiliar “Desperate Housewives” and the boldly inaccessible “Lost,” as well as the groundbreaking “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Each a critical and popular phenomenon, they connected with the audience and the zeitgeist. They were embraced by millions who liked surprise more than reassurance.

Can that happen today? Is creative daring at the broadcast networks now concentrated on marketing and content delivery, while the shows themselves are content (accent on the second syllable) to play it safe? These days, technology defies expectations; TV keeps confirming them.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.