What’s the Future of Linear TV?

Stacey Lynn Schulman

ALEXANDRIA, VA—Scripted powerhouse shows like “NCIS” (CBS) and “Modern Family” (ABC) — as well as live fare such the NFL (Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN) and “The Voice” (NBC)—continue to capture the largest audiences in television, but it’s the specific demographics within those audiences that matter more to advertisers. The coveted 18-49 demo is good; the 18-34 group which has not become brand-loyal quite yet is even better for many of today’s real-life “Mad Men” (AMC).

But the devil is in the details. While fresh television content becomes increasingly available via a wide array of formats and devices via online downloads, DVR and VOD, and even Netflix, traditional TV remains locked in a fixed-schedule form of “linear television” where even sophisticated electronic program guides cannot obscure the fact that shows start and end at prescribed times, and not all young viewers have access to convenient time-shifting DVRs, Netflix streaming, newer TV smart sets, or cable on-demand.

Still, broadcast content draws young viewers in large numbers, and there are myriad ways to effectively keep them coming back for more, according to Stacey Lynn Schulman, senior vice president and chief research officer of the TV station trade association TVB. She spoke with TV Technology recently to discuss how broadcasters should respond to the changing landscape.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Some media analysts are saying linear television today is an outmoded form of media for young viewers, who increasingly are used to time-shifting their favorite TV content on various devices to suit their own needs. Do they have a point?
TVB: Despite the many options at their disposal, young people are still drawn to the same content they’ve always been drawn to on broadcast television… sports, because it’s “in-the-moment”… comedy because it typically features younger casts who more often reflect the life situations that young people navigate… and reality because it provides the unexpected. Think back 20 years to when the repeal of the financial interest and syndication rules allowed for studios to get into the network television business. Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount (UPN) and Warner Bros. (WB) each launched new TV networks that mostly cater to young adults.

And they did it with irreverence—such as “Married with Children” and “The Simpsons,” with reality like “COPS” and “America’s Most Wanted,” and serialized dramas that portrayed young protagonists such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like all viewers, young viewers like to see themselves reflected in the entertainment they consume. Unlike other viewing groups, however, they’re hungrier for content that surprises and delights them. They’re amused by what they can’t expect [hence the growth of the reality genre in the last decade] and thanks to technology, they want instant gratification.

TVT: So among other things, fixed linear TV takes on a sort of communal aspect for young viewers?
TVB: Yes, programming that must be viewed alongside the masses in order to provide the viewer with cultural currency while tweeting, posting or otherwise “sharing” will be the most attractive lure for younger viewers. Otherwise, it just has to fit in with their schedule. That’s why mobile digital television is so important.

TVT: Mobile, as in ATSC Mobile TV?
TVB: Yes, over-the-air Mobile TV makes fixed linear TV portable and accessible everywhere at the same time. We know that young viewers already like the content that broadcasters provide, but making it accessible on mobile devices in real time allows young viewers to have the best of both worlds. Providing for “screen-shifting” as opposed to “time-shifting” is one of the most attractive lures you can offer this young generation.

TVT: But what about competition from all the other video that currently circulates online?
TVB: Nielsen recently released its Third Quarter Cross-Platform Report, and in a comparison of Monthly Time Spent with Media, television was viewed 11 times as much as Internet video and 20 times as much as mobile video by adults 18-34. Advertisers are interested in getting their message out in the most expedient way to the largest number of their consumer targets. So simply put, the best way to do that still is broadcast television. TV builds brands because placement inside television’s community of viewers drives awareness and curiosity, and ultimately, “trial.” Long before we were talking about “virtual online communities,” television was creating “live communities” of people who could come together simultaneously to have an entertainment experience.

TVT: But current conventional wisdom seems to point to more personalized one-on-one media trending, not one-to-many or mass participation.
TVB: Yet the duality of our complex media environment is that the drive toward ultimate personalization also creates a simultaneous longing for “connection.” For that reason alone, we’ll always have opportunities to attract mass audiences with television. On a more practical note, don’t forget the content that serves these various video platforms emanates primarily from broadcast television and once we’re able to properly measure consumption on these devices, the concept of “fixed linear TV” will change to be considered inclusive of live viewing on any device. This is why local broadcasters have been pushing the growth of live mobile digital TV.

TVT: We note the quest for younger viewers is the main reason ABC recently positioned Jimmy Kimmel head-to-head with David Letterman and Jay Leno at 11:35 ET. And one cable network, Syfy, plans to air a new series this spring in tandem with a new video game (“Defiance”) as a way to lure more young viewers to linear programming.
TVB: And TVB applauds the efforts of all broadcasters who look for these innovative ways to engage audiences and extend their connections. The key to success is really in creating opportunities for advertisers to participate with young audiences in ways that enable deeper and richer experiences without disrupting that “core viewing occasion.” Second-screen capabilities are growing, but young people are master multitaskers as much as they are arbiters of genuine experiences.

When broadcasters and marketers partner in understanding the core drivers of attraction to their content and brands, they can create terrific experiences at the intersection of those drivers and create true viewer delight—whether it’s on a second screen or a video game. That’s when everybody wins.