This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The problem with making the argument about the fundamental decline of television, or the opposite argument — that this is an extraordinary new golden age — may be the word “television” itself.
On the one hand, there is the prevalent view that ad and audience declines are part of a structural condition that links television, in a digital world, with the grim fate of music and print. On the other hand, there is the empirical fact that all anybody talks about is the latest television show, that it is the cultural sine qua non, and that, to boot, TV-pure-play stock prices have seldom been higher. So where exactly is “television”? Headed for the crapper or the summit?
Mad Men, finishing up its extra-ordinary seven-season run, may have become a media phenomenon, and yet it only ever found a limited audience. So, hit or flop? What is the measure? What is the definition?
Television remains television: a historical idea, a physical thing, something judged by neatly fixed standards (Nielsen). At the same time, it arguably has become a much broader notion, much harder to capture and to measure and, in the transformation, a much richer and influential business.
From the TV-industry point of view, it has been frustrating and more and more confounding that television continues to be defined as a business consisting of a fixed screen in the home, whose use is measured by Nielsen. By that definition, television has lost as much as 30 percent of its audience.
That missing audience, however, by most indications, is still pursuing television shows, just not on “television.” An episode of MTV’s Teen Wolf may have an aggregate television viewership of 8 million, but there is, too, a largely unaccounted for and mostly unmonetized 100 million streams of the show. Reaching something of crisis proportions, virtually every significant television show has seen a meaningful part of its audience move from conventional box to venues outside of traditional measurement, with, arguably, a whole new audience added to it. Meaning television, depending on how you define it, has gotten much larger rather than much smaller.
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