Mal Fletcher
TV A Dominant Force Once More. But Can It Stay That Way?

Sixty years ago, Samuel Goldwyn, the movie mogul predicted that TV wouldn’t last more than six months.

Despite dire predictions like this, a new survey suggests that TV is doing very well in Britain, even in the age of Web 3.0 and ubiquitous mobile digital gadgetry.

The survey reveals that 70 percent of Brits admit to feeling seriously upset when their favourite TV series come to an end. One in four Britons say they’ve started to think of their favourite characters as people they know.

The study also shows something of a British obsession with DVD box sets, with forty-nine percent of families apparently indulging in marathon, back-to-back viewing sessions.

Yet TV viewership, at least on commercial platforms, may well drop off when new proposals announced by the media regulator Ofcom are enforced by UK networks.

The proposed new rules, which come into force next week, will allow broadcasters to increase the maximum number of minutes of advertising per hour from the current seven minutes to twelve minutes. The rules will allow two six-minute ad breaks per hour.

The rules will be in place for a one year trial period, to gauge audience response.  Ofcom insists that whether stations take up the proposals is a matter for their discretion.

However, given the current slump in TV advertising revenues, and growing competition from games manufacturers, it’s highly unlikely that this offer won’t be eagerly and hungrily snapped up. Unless there’s a sustained outcry from disgruntled viewers, the measures will almost certainly become institutionalised.

Advertising, like work, always seems to expand to fill the space available.

There may indeed be a public outcry of sorts, but a more likely scenario is that these measures will simply drive TV viewers further into the world of the DVD box set.

Or, they will help to erode broadcast television viewership in the face of growing competition from webcast and mobile platforms and games such as Wii and Xbox.

On one level, the timing of these new rules – or the financial necessity for them – seems a shame for television as a broadcast medium.

Only certain genres of programming lend themselves to the type of long-run, episodic series that will fill a box set. One-off documentaries, for example, which already struggle to achieve a decent audience share, will find it hard to warrant anything but the smallest of production budgets.

On another level, it may simply force more producers to look at DVD as an end in itself. In the end, television programming may be seen merely as a way to promote DVDs, instead of the other way around. (In some cases, that may already be happening.)

It would be a shame if viewing figures for broadcast TV were to fall away as television production, generally speaking, has come of age over the past few years.

‘In Beverly Hills,’ said Woody Allen, ‘they don't throw their garbage away. They make it into TV shows.’ Actually, television has arguably lifted its game in recent years, at least in terms of drama series.

TV need no longer feel inferior as it once did to the bigger, bolder and flashier cousin, cinema.

Some leading American film critics have dubbed 2010 as the worst year in decades for quality movie output. While Hollywood continues to churn out sequels, prequels and re-makes, which are designed to appeal only to the lowest common demographic denominator, TV drama fairly consistently produces material that is both well scripted and highly crafted.

Television dramas are often more thoughtful than they once were, too. Some of them routinely explore quite hefty social, moral and ethical questions, albeit in an entertaining way. They provide an invaluable opportunity for reflection and debate on some of the big questions of our time.

In some instances, of course, issues are still trivialised. This is often because of the constraints of the programme format, or because some producers prefer entertainment that titillates rather than informs.

Yet TV drama’s better examples allow us to engage in a story while thinking through important issues. Most of us enjoy that; we like to believe that we’re thinking people.

TV is also attractive because it provides long-running episodic series, which allow us to fully immerse ourselves fully in their story-lines. If you watch something for 30 minutes, you’re in and out of the story pretty quickly, but if you watch for several hours or more, you start to really engage with the characters and their world.

Television viewing then becomes a type of virtual reality experience, minus the clunky apparatus and the nascent haptic technology.

This VR aspect of TV viewing is backed up in the study mentioned above. A quarter of the men surveyed claim that their partners have begun to act like characters from their most-watched shows.

Ironically, TV also offers communal or family benefits. I say ‘ironically’ because not that long ago, doomsayers were proclaiming the death of family time at the hands of TV.

Now, it seems, only five hours a week are spent eating with family yet the average Brit spends twice that watching TV with family. In the age of ‘absent presence’ brought on by digital gadgets, the TV has once again become a node around which people like to gather.

For families, there are real benefits to be gained from engaging with a story, especially a long story, together, in one place.

Sharing a long-running narrative cements the sense of collective experience that is so central to a family’s wellbeing and the longevity of its relationships. Family holiday snaps reinforce this, too, as do home movies – or, nowadays, ‘phone movies’.

Watching series together also provides important opportunities for parents to shape the values of their children, in a fun and engaging way.

From fairy-tales to bedtime stories, the narrative has always allowed children to vicariously – and safely – inhabit a world beyond their home. This sparks imagination. It also allows parents to offer softly-softly moral education, as they interact with their kids on how certain situations might be faced, or certain problems solved.

Family TV viewing also provides a training ground for self-discipline.

As with any of the good things in life, self-control is the key to getting the most out of technology. Children and young teenagers will swear black and blue that they know how much TV – or internet – is good for them.

But children aren’t born mature. They don’t yet have the emotional or intellectual capacity to make informed judgements as to how much media is too much media, or what kinds of content will likely do them more harm than good.

Family viewing allows parents to set and maintain parameters for how much time their kids give to screens and gadgets and what type of content they imbibe. It also allows them to model how one can balance the various aspects of a healthy life.

Over the next few years, the exponential growth in computer power and internet speed will challenge the role of traditional TV in new ways. Whether TV remains a dominant medium depends on many things, not least of which will be its ability to accommodate and converge with new media as it is doing now.

One thing is sure, though: television, for now at least, is stronger than it’s ever been. Hopefully, new advertising rules won’t bite too much into that popularity.

 


Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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