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Why is television tanking?

Kree Harrison performs Faith Hill's "Stronger" on "American

Kree Harrison performs Faith Hill's "Stronger" on "American Idol" Tuesday. Regarding TV shows overall, younger viewers are tuning out big time. There was an 11 percent decline from 2011 to 2012 among viewers of traditional over-the-air TV, age 18-24. (March 5, 2013) Credit: Fox

Why aren't people watching television? To put this more concisely, why are fewer and fewer people watching established hits ("American Idol"), established networks (NBC), and brand new shows ("Golden Boy") which get a lot of  network promotional love, but not all that much audience love?

Why, why, why? 

These are worrisome times in the field of network television broadcasting and even mighty CBS -- the leader -- has all sorts of reasons to be concerned. I get into all of this in a column in Newsday today, but, space being what it is, only scratch the surface of this issue. (Column posted  below.) So, here's an expanded list of reasons explaining, or attempting to explain, why television viewing seems -- "seems" is the operative word -- to be receding on so many fronts. Because, of course, people are still watching TV, just in very very different ways.

- People are confused. True! They don't know where shows are, which ones are coming up, how to find them, and if they do find them, where to find them the next week. It's like a deck 'o cards thrown in the air. This has been a long-standing issue, but with a vast expansion of new programs and outlets in recent years, has only gotten worse, or certainly more complicated, particularly for those less tech savvy, namely older viewers, who also tend to be the heaviest ones. 

- Younger viewers are tuning out big time. There was an 11 percent decline from 2011 to 2012 among viewers of traditional over-the-air TV, age 18-24. That's a big hit right where it hurts most, those people who 10, 15 years from now will be sort of what many of their parents are doing right now -- plopping down in front of the tube to watch "NCIS: LA." If they're not getting in the habit now, they won't later. Keep in mind, this is the DIY generation, they want TV when they want it, and how they want it. The idea of doing what the networks tell them to do -- "tune in at 8 for Name a Show!" -- is anathema to them.

- The tablet boom: And the game console boom, too. Kids and young adults, millions of them, are simply not watching on traditional TVs any longer, but catching up on the devices they live with. TV is sedentary -- mobile devices, of course, are not. No matter how much Nielsen is trying and will continue to try, it is hugely difficult catching this demo's numbers.

 - Bingeing: This is a big factor and a surprisingly difficult one to tabulate, so I must rely on what seems to be anecdotal evidence. But many viewers are simply not bothering to watch a favorite series, instead opting to watch much later (on their tabs) all at once. They might spend a whole weekend doing this, or, if they can't sleep, maybe all night. Who knows! But Netflix is really on to something here -- give viewers "House of Cards" all at once, because that's how they want to consume it. 

Now, on to that aforementioned column, which adds up five other reasons for the drop in viewing.

You could call this the winter of their discontent - but they (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) would probably use other words, none printable here.

Bluntly speaking, this has been an awful winter for the broadcast networks. Don't bother looking for ABC's much-promoted Anthony Edwards' newcomer tonight ("Zero Hour) -- it's gone. "Red Widow" limped through Sunday's premiere; CBS's "Golden Boy" arrived quietly; NBC's "Do No Harm" was whacked after two outings; and even Fox's The Following" -- which just earned a full season pickup -- has slid after a strong start.

What's going on? I spoke with a few industry experts -- including senior executives at the networks who requested anonymity -- and these are a few of the reasons we came up with:

Theory 1: The new paradigm: Fancy talk for how people are watching TV differently, particularly young people (who largely watch streaming content) and boomers (huge DVR users). An example of the new paradigm - "Zero TV homes," Nielsen's term for homes with no TV There are five million of them now, up from 1.27 million just two years ago. These "homes," usually occupied by young singles, are getting their TV by computer or tabs. They are the trendsetters, and if they aren't watching new network shows when they launch, then the new shows are instantly in trouble. "Broadcast is old [in terms of viewers], cable is young, online is younger," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of Horizon Media, a New York advertising firm. "That pretty much sums up where this is heading."

Theory 2: It's the show, stupid. Or put another way, most people don't want to watch boring derivative TV anymore. HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, now Netflix ("House of Cards"), have spoiled viewers. "You always start with the shows," says one veteran. "Even here we can find a million excuses but at the end of the day if you make something people want to see they will come, and I think this has been a year where there have not been a lot of compelling new shows on broadcast TV."

Theory 3: The new tipping point. Or to put this another way, something very different is going on when Univision, as it did last week, beat NBC in prime time. Another veteran says that "in the fall we kind of threw the 'tipping point' theory out there [that it had arrived] and no one has refuted it yet ... I used to say, this is coming, this is coming, this is coming - and now it's here." What's "here?" Ferocious competition from dozens, hundreds, of viewing sources which have eviscerated the networks' ability to generate enough "promotional impressions" -- industry lingo for tune-in reminders. Simply put, most people don't even KNOW when a new show is on.

Theory 4: No one really does know anything in Hollywood. Shows arrive that you think you've seen before -- and guess what? You have! Networks recycle ideas all the time, and often in the same time periods. "There's a lack of historical perspective in this business," says an exec. "We're the ones in the meetings who look at the [development] executive and say, 'we've seen this show 15 times. And you know how many times it's failed? Fifteen times.'"

Theory 5: Trigger-happy networks have no patience. Here’s a truism that is probably true – networks have no patience if a show starts off poorly while cable lets a show ride for months on a low rating. There are lots of reasons for this but viewers may well end up thinking, why bother to invest any time with a series like “Zero Hour” if the life expectancy can be measured in weeks?

Theory 6: All of the above.

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