BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Back in 2005, we ran a little piece about the future of mass media. It was a crackpot screed predicting all sorts of futuristic nonsense, like podcasts displacing radio listening and consumer-generated video aggregating vast audiences online. This was before the emergence of YouTube, of course, not to mention Hulu, Roku and Netflix streaming. But the soothsaying business is not for the faint of heart, so while we were at it, we meditated on apocalypse.
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For the moment, let’s call it a hypothetical but what if network broadcast television, the most powerful communications force in the history of mankind, the “opiate of the masses,” the home of Desperate Housewives, were to disappear?
DR. RAY STANTZ: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! DR. PETER WENKMAN: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Yep, a world without TV networks, unthinkable! This was David Poltrack, head of research for CBS, imagining life not only without fresh episodes of CSI - sneak in the theme music –
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– but without a place for advertisers to efficiently pitch their wares.
DAVID POLTRACK: And if, in fact, that current system deteriorates to the point that advertisers and marketers abandon it, I don’t see anything that’s going to replace it in the entire marketing infrastructure of the country, and the economy is going to be diminished. And that’s a lot bigger problem than just a network television problem.
BOB GARFIELD: He had that right. Even as more and more viewing is done online, except for Search, the Internet turns out to be a terrible advertising medium. But as to Poltrack’s skepticism, and most everybody else’s, about what we called the Chaos Scenario, all we were doing was looking at trends, the rapid ascension of digital technology, on the one hand, and on the rapid erosion of network audiences, on the other.
Back in 2005, that audience had been shrinking for a decade to a mere 16.5% of TV households in prime time. Today, only 11.5% of households are watching. The other 88.5% are doing something else. And yet, advertisers are so desperate for any slender vestige of a mass audience, networks have been able to keep afloat by boosting the ad rate per viewer.
Still, revenues are slipping and eventually will fall below the cost of producing the programming. Here’s a canary in the coal mine. In the first quarter of 2012, NBC, despite a Super Bowl bonanza, showed an operating loss. We’ve seen the devastation in newspapers, magazines, book publishing, the recording industry, Hollywood. The Chaos Scenario imagines the end of broadcast, as we know it, by the year 2020. Well, we’re halfway there.