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Is live TV in trouble?

It's still the king of the mountain, but delayed and remote viewing are eroding its flanks.

By doubleace May 9, 2011 7:35AM

This post comes from Lynn Mucken at MSN Money.


My mom's parents were born in the 1880s and died in the late 1960s, a period that saw life-changing technological advances: telephones, movies, automobiles, indoor plumbing (they didn't get it until the 1930s at their home in rural Oregon), radio, refrigerators, airplanes, jet planes, clothes washers, space flights, nuclear weapons …

A couple of years before their deaths, I asked them separately what was the most amazing invention of their lifetime. Neither hesitated a moment before answering: "Television."

So, it was with a bit of nostalgic sadness that I read that fewer and fewer people are watching TV live. 


From a world that features almost hourly leaps in smartphone, computer and video game technology, the fever of excitement that greeted the arrival of a TV in your neighborhood in the early 1950s seems quaint.


We were the first in our block to get one -- maybe my dad wanted to blot out the noise from his six kids -- and for a month or so, we had to literally throw the neighbors out so we could go to bed.


It was love at first sight -- Roy Rogers! Cartoons! Lucy! -- and one that has lasted to this day. I was transfixed as big moments unfolded: the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 (OK, I was a nerdy 11-year-old), Willie Mays hitting four home runs against the Braves, the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the race riots of the late 1960s, the UCLA-Houston basketball game, the Vietnam War, the first walk on the Moon, the demise of the Patty Hearst-kidnapping SLA, Watergate, the burning of the Branch Davidian compound, the O.J. Simpson trial, 9/11, the election of an African-American as president.  Post continues after video. 

Live television isn't dead of course. Americans still watch it an average 5 hours, 11 minutes a day. And while research company Nielsen estimates that 1.2 million fewer homes will have TVs in 2012, there will still be 114.7 million homes with them. That anticipated dip in TV homes would be the first decrease since 1992, another year in which Americans were financially challenged, so this might just be an economic blip.


But it doesn't feel like that; it feels like a sea change.


A survey last August by market research company Morpace showed that while live TV consumed 64% of the viewing time of Americans 55 and older, the figure was 51% for those 35-54 and 41% for those 18-34. The rest came through remote devices or what Nielson had branded "timeshifting TV," delayed viewing on your home TV. It said timeshifting was up 13.4% in the fourth quarter of 2010 over a year earlier, while mobile viewing was up 41%. In January 2011, 143.9 million Americans viewed video online.


According to the survey, live TV is suffering a thousand cuts: DVRs, DVDs, live streaming, smartphones, Hulu, iTunes


J.D. Roth, who blogs at Get Rich Slowly, explains how it happened for his family:

Kris and I pulled the plug on our television. We canceled cable, gave our DVD player to her sister, and moved the television to the workshop until we can find a buyer. We're now officially TV-free.

Sort of.


We haven't given up TV shows and DVDs entirely. We're just consuming this entertainment via other methods. Namely, we use:

Roth says they took the step when they realized they had not turned on their TV in five months.


That got me to thinking. What do my wife and I watch live these days? Well, I have the cable news channels going in the background most of the time I'm home. But actually sitting down and watching a show live? Almost never.

There are too many commercials, and time is an ever-dwindling commodity. Skipping through the commercials and the too-good-not-to-be-scripted practice confrontations, my wife can watch a two-hour "Dancing With The Stars" episode in about 75 minutes. For me, golf tournaments can be cut by a half, and baseball games by a third.


What effect will this have on the American consumer?


Probably not a lot financially. Many of us have already abandoned the cheapest alternative -- free TV paid for by all those commercials -- in favor of more convenient and less irritating viewing. But most of it costs: Cable TV or the Internet have monthly fees; so does Netflix, whether by mail or streaming. Others tease you with free material but charge for the good stuff. All these bit and pieces add up.


The ones flinching have to be the content providers, who have the most to lose. According to Nielsen, $69 billion was spent on TV advertising in 2010. 


A Los Angeles Times editorial talked about how the television networks are working on ways to replace their free Internet programming with a fee system. It also predicted that cable's philosophy of force-feeding -- and charging -- you with 150 channels when you really want to watch 35 will also have to change.


"Nor can advertiser-supported TV networks afford to erect barriers between their shows and the audience online when viewers are spending more time on the Net and less in front of their sets," the editorial said. "The longer cable operators try to fight these trends, the more likely they'll be outplayed by new services that find a way to give viewers exactly what they want -- no more and no less."


More on MSN Money:

May 9, 2011 5:56PM
Yes, the whole live TV model is antiquated.  In my opinion, TV is one of the better "inventions" out there. I've been using TVDevo website for a while and get pretty much all the shows I used to watch on conventional TV. The difference is that I can watch the shows when I want and as often. Plus, I can get past episodes on demand.
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