Watching television isn’t like it used to be

Is "watching television" rapidly going the way of "listening to a cassette"? What's a cassette, you ask? Let me explain. . . .

“Watching television” might, in the not too distant future, become one of those things that has to be explained to younger people, in the same way that we now have to explain rotary dial phones, record players, and how much better Mars bars used to taste to anyone born after about 1990. There are two reasons for this: the number of people who watch a given television show has been steadily decreasing for years, and the people who actually watch these shows on a television set at the time they’re originally broadcast is likewise declining.

In 1950/51, 61% of all houses with televisions in the U.S. watched Texaco Star Theater, making it the most popular show of the year. With the odd exception, the most watched TV show of every year since has had a smaller and smaller audience share, so that All in the Family in the early 1970s was watched by 30% of households with TVs, ER in the mid-1990s was watched by 22%, and in this century American Idol reached a high of 17% in 2006/07 and dropped steadily after that, proving that there’s a limit to how much punishment some viewers can take.

This declining audience share can be explained, in part, by how many hundreds of TV channels are now available. Name a specialty interest, and you’ll probably find a channel devoted to it somewhere at the far reaches of your channel guide. When there were only a handful of channels, it was possible for something like the final episode of M*A*S*H to be watched by a mind-boggling 125 million people in the U.S. alone, a number that today’s TV executives can only dream about. Nowadays those 125 million people are, between them, probably watching approximately 127 different shows at the same time on a given night, which not only drives shows’ audience share down, but also makes it much tougher to discuss your TV viewing at work the next day (and if you do find someone who watched what you did, there’s sure to be a third person who recorded it, or is waiting for the DVD to come out, who will be glaring at you as they hiss “No spoilers!”).

Which illustrates another reason why “watching television” in the traditional sense is, if not dead, then not in good health. Long gone are the days when if you wanted to watch a certain show, you had to make sure you were in front of your TV on the date and at the time when it aired. These days people are as likely to record a show and watch it when it’s convenient for them, not the network; or catch up with it online; or wait until the DVD is available. Or they’re cutting the cable altogether, fed up with companies which insist (as is the case with our provider: thanks, Shaw) that if you want Turner Classic Movies you can only have it if you get several children’s TV channels as well. They’re turning to providers like Netflix to supply their viewing needs, getting what they want when they want it, and foregoing TV sets in favour of computer screens and tablets.

So “watching television” might be going the way of “listening to music on a cassette”. What’s a cassette? I hear someone ask. Let me explain. . . .

Barbara Roden