BOB GARFIELD: The future of network television looks a bit dicey these days with viewers fleeing in droves and advertisers not far behind them. Some observers, including me, have all but written off the broadcast business as the most prominent casualty of a collapse of the mainstream media already in progress. But Paul Fahri, writing in the Washington Post, begs to differ. According to Fahri, the networks not only will survive - they'll thrive. Paul, welcome to OTM.
PAUL FAHRI: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me an idea of how technology threatens the networks and how it could ultimately, in your view, save them.
PAUL FAHRI: Sure. I mean, they are now four or six, depending on how you want to count, channels in a world in which people have access to hundreds of channels, of course, but there will soon be millions of channels of video available to people. Now we're getting DVRs, this sort of newfangled TiVo that allows people to watch whatever they want, to tape record and play back almost instantly. Soon there will be Internet speeds that make television indistinguishable from the Internet. There are already the growing v-log movement, videolog movement which has lots of people sending video around the Internet. So all of these things are alternative viewing options.
BOB GARFIELD: Right. And in that environment, how can the networks ever compete in the long run? What will be their salvation?
PAUL FAHRI: Their salvation will be programming that people want to watch. It's one thing to get out a digital camera - you and I could do it - and shoot shots of our kids and post them up on the Internet but who truly wants to watch that? Now, it's not to say that there aren't some well-produced videos flying around the Internet. There are. But what people want to watch, it tends to be the very expensively-produced kinds of things that Hollywood creates, starring people they've heard of, written by professional writers, directed by accomplished directors. Those are the things that week after week people tune in.
BOB GARFIELD: You also questioned some of the conventional wisdom that was propelling maybe the most pessimistic of the future scenarios for network TV, including - you mentioned DVRs, digital video recorders - including statistics about how much consumers will embrace that technology. Tell me about that.
PAUL FAHRI: CBS, for instance, did some of this research and looked at, one, what people are watching and how they're watching. And what people are watching tends to be the same shows that are leading the Nielson ratings every week. People do want to watch Survivor and American Idol on their DVRs just as they watch it in real time when the networks put it on. And what's really interesting about it is that some large percentage of those people who are watching a show on a DVR aren't skipping the commercials. They're watching the commercials even though they could skip them. So the networks are starting to think, hmm, we now have the capability to take advantage of this technology as opposed to being threatened by it. Our advertisers will get incrementally more viewers than they would have just through the one time we broadcast it on the network. So maybe DVRs are gonna help us, not hurt us.
BOB GARFIELD: Hmm. So just to clarify, some studies have shown that on average, 70 percent of viewers do skip through the commercials, which, of course, provide the revenue for the networks to produce all those glossy shows that everyone loves. But CBS has numbers that says, no, it's not 70 percent and actually it's closer to 50, and they're watching these shows again and again and again.
PAUL FAHRI: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you've been covering TV for quite a while and I - and I know [CHUCKLES] you know when you're getting Pollyanna estimations of the future from your sources. Sound familiar to you at all?
PAUL FAHRI: Well, it would if the networks were a standalone business, but, of course, they no longer are. They're owned by these enormous conglomerates that own the studios and produce the shows and air the shows on cable and broadcast networks.
BOB GARFIELD: So what you're describing really is like Hollywood films where there is a theatrical release window and then there's a pay-TV window and an in-flight movie window and a DVD release and so forth until they've squeezed every last farthing out of any given film. Are you suggesting that these conglomerates will just view broadcast television as one of the primary window in a whole series of them?
PAUL FAHRI: They already do. The DVD market for TV shows is a multibillion-dollar market for them now. The broadcast networks might just be the carnival barker getting people into the tent. "Come on in and see the fall shows. You may like them. You may not." But once you go to the store to buy DVDs you'll say, "Oh, yeah. There's that show that I really enjoyed when it aired on the networks. I missed a few episodes. I'll buy the DVD. Oh, and there it is flying around the Internet. I can download it now for a dollar? Hey, that's pretty good! I'll do that too." So the networks just become the promotional vehicle in a certain fashion. They already have become that. And it turns out that the promotional vehicle is still the tail wagging this dog. You can get 25 million people to sample the product, if you will, on the first night but those 25 million people will grow to 50 million or 100 million as the program moves down the chain of distribution.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul, as always, it's a great pleasure.
PAUL FAHRI: A pleasure for me too, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Fahri writes about television and other media topics for the Washington Post.
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