The rapid changes facing television are a hot topic, both in the trade press and in academic conferences and papers. Titles like “Traditional TV has survived the net threat, but for how much longer,” “Online streaming services are becoming a threat to broadcast television,” and “Cordnevers could be bigger threat to TV than cord-cutters,” indicate a new turnaround in the spiral of change that has for decades dominated industry and journalistic discourse on television. Changes in technologies and markets, as well as the emergence of new services with new business models, are not only seen to threaten the position of established market actors but the very understanding and definition of television. Indeed, in academic contributions, the very term “television” seems to need an increasing number of add-ons to be precise. Since the turn of the century, research literature has drawn many distinctions between definitions such as “broadcast TV” and “post-broadcast TV,” “TV” and “television,” “linear-TV” and “non-linear TV.”
Despite attempts at clarification, it is not always easy to understand which aspects of television are being directly and indirectly challenged and by which forces they’re being challenged. A common understanding of (traditional) television is a system of distributing mixed schedule programming simultaneously to a mass audience who is watching in their homes on traditional television sets, where advertising and fees are the most important sources of revenue. In this new age, this model seems to be challenged on at least three fronts. First, the fragmentation of audiences due to the constraints of standardized programming may undermine the mass media aspect of television; second, traditional television companies may not be able to acquire the content they need to build an attractive schedule, and third, the very business model may be undermined as both viewers and advertisers migrate away from the traditional broadcast platform.
These challenges are real and have considerable impact on the ways in which we ought to understand television and its future. But despite these challenges, it would be an error to fall into the current tendency to talk in terms of boom and doom—boom for new media and doom for television. The rhetoric in these debates is infused with expectations of immense progress or of steep decline, and these predictions about revolution in the TV sector are often voiced by actors who themselves have vested interests in the realization of these predictions. An illustrative example is that of the co-founder and CEO of the online TV streaming company Netflix, Reed Hastings. In 2015, Hastings argued that “In ten years time, or twenty at the most, linear TV with a fixed schedule will be dead.” He points to how the landline telephone became irrelevant with the introduction of the cell phone, and he predicts that online streaming will similarly replace traditional TV. This type of rhetoric gets broad coverage; the press covers new actors such as Netflix and new trends in TV usage such as “binge watching” extensively, but the press is less fascinated with stories about the resilience of traditional forms of television and the recent resurgence of advertising investments in traditional television markets. A key rhetorical challenge for traditional TV companies is to combat the image of an old-fashioned, irrelevant, and dying industry, which is partly constructed by their new competitors’ marketing strategists. It is of the utmost importance that traditional TV companies not allow themselves to be cast in the role of the old, grumpy grandpa across the street as people like Hastings strive to do.
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