Will TV survive the online revolution?

Regular broadcast television isn't going anywhere in a hurry and convincing customers to make the switch is easier said than done.

Is it time to hang up our TV remotes and surf the net? Not yet.

Every day there is an  article predicting the death of regular broadcast TV. The articles always cite someone the author knows or the author as having “cut the cord” and stopped watching regular TV.

On face value, it is easy to see why journalists would be predicting (or even wishing) the demise of broadcast TV. There is the increasing availability of TV shows and other video on the Internet either through services provided by the broadcasters themselves or through YouTube and other sites.

A survey by Nielsen in the US has shown that 84 per cent of respondents had watched video content at home on a computer within the previous month as compared to 85 per cent for TV.

The growth in popularity of applications like the BBC’s iPlayer and Australia’s ABC iView has accelerated. In December 2011, there were 187 million requests for programmes on iPlayer across all platforms. This included seven million from internet-connected TVs.

And it is not that people will only use internet services if they are free. Hulu, a web-based video site serving TV and movies has 1.5 million paid subscribers in the US.

However, according to Nielsen this compares with the 103 million Americans who pay for a cable, satellite or telephone company service for TV. This is 90.4 per cent of the viewing audience. Only one per cent of homes have a broadband service with no TV.

Americans spend on average nearly 147 hours a month watching TV or nearly five hours a day. If they watch video on the internet, it represents on average an additional 4.5 hours a month, which is 2.5 per cent of the total viewing time.

In Australia, the situation is not that different. Around 96 per cent of all video is still watched on a conventional TV set.

These results are not surprising. Although we live at a time where things appear to be rapidly changing, change is always uneven. More importantly, we underestimate the resistance to change that is built into society. This is especially the case when most of the people involved would argue that the incentive to change from regular TV is simply not there.

Watching TV requires a single unthinking act of pressing a button on a remote. The hardest decisions that then need to be made in the ensuing five hours are whether to switch channel and when to get up for food and “comfort” breaks.

The alternative, to substitute five hours of active decision-making and sourcing content on the internet, would actually be quite demanding. The other consideration is that TV viewing is often a social activity. At least it involves more than one person. This again makes it harder to make decisions about what content to find and watch.

Clay Shirky, author of the book Cognitive Surplus theorised about the untapped potential of people using the time they wasted watching TV on creative and constructive use – mediated by the internet of course. He pointed out that the effort expended on creating Wikipedia was roughly 1 per cent of the total amount of time Americans spent watching TV in a year.

Sadly, Shirky’s world is not materialising to any great degree, as viewing figures for TV have remained largely unchanged with the development of the Internet. If anything, people are “wasting” even more time by supplementing TV with videos on other platforms.

There is no doubt that we are changing habits in terms of accessing media of all kinds. The impact on TV, however, is likely to be much slower than for other industries. The challenge for all broadcasters, whether it is on the Internet or on TV, is the cost of producing content. But the point here is that this problem is common to all platforms and there is no easy solution.

Even for the most dedicated of couch potatoes, there are only so many cute cat videos anyone can watch.

David Glance is a Director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia

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