Lately, much has been written about the future of television. Although opinions diverge—from the death of broadcasting to the rise of user-generated online content—all agree that new versions of television are emerging that differ in crucial ways from its original industrial organization and social utility. Many scholars use a three-stage division to structure the history of television.
The first era is that of broadcast television or the ‘network era.’ In this period, television was characterized by a limited number of channels which broadcast only for part of the day. Television presented definitive and fixed programming to a mass audience; viewers could only access television shows at appointed times in a routinized daily sequence of programming. The structure of broadcasting schedules during this era reflected basic assumptions about the routines of the everyday lives of viewers. During this era, the linear daily sequence of television programming was ‘pushed’ to viewers, leaving them with little to no control over their viewing habits. Television addressed a unified, national audience conceived of as a collective of families watching television together in the domestic sphere. Millions of viewers watched the exact same content at the exact same time every night. This synchronicity played a vital role in creating a sense of being part of a particular audience. Watching traditional linear television was an experience of ‘watching with,’ watching with all the other distant and unknown viewers.
The second era of television was that of cable and commercial television when multiple channels competed for viewers’ attention. Whereas the first era was characterized by social unity, the second era was characterized by social differentiation and choice. The mass audience became fragmented into niche audiences who turned their attention to specialized channels. TV stations began to develop strategic broadcasting schedules in order to create a specific channel identity and to attract and retain viewers. There was a general shift in terms of power and agency from the networks to viewers. The audience became increasingly dispersed because of the evolution from a select few channels to a multitude of channels. One might say that television went from a mentality of broadcasting to narrowcasting.
The third and current era of television is that of digitization and convergence. In the new millennium, television has rapidly moved into the “post-network era.” In this era, the diversification of the production and distribution of TV content that started in the second era has been compounded many times over by a never-ending stream of technological advances and ever lower costs associated with those advances. A clear example is that of the digital video recorder (DVR) and the personal video recorder (PVR) which allow viewers to easily split up the flow of content into individual programs that can be reordered, saved and reviewed however and whenever the viewer likes. Partly in response to the threat of these convenience technologies, many television providers have come to embrace video-on-demand (VOD) distribution technologies that allow viewers to purchase and watch individual programs. This sort of thinking can be seen in the streaming or downloading of television programs through specialized websites such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. In short, the interfaces and platforms through which a viewer can access television programs have multiplied exponentially. Because of these innovations, all the established knowledge about how audiences watch television is being called into question, and it is essential that those who study media in the academy account for these innovations in their thinking.
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