Network TV and the prime-time wars

Tad Friend in The New Yorker:

TvThe past dozen years have been the most convulsive in television history. The four major networks’ share of the viewing audience has fallen from seventy-two per cent to forty-six. As the HBO hits “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood” made even the best network shows look strangely antique, basic-cable offerings like “South Park” (on Comedy Central) and “The Shield” (on FX) fattened their channels’ purses through subscription fees as well as through ads. Even Univision’s telenovela “Alborada” began to outdraw some network shows. Scrambling to keep up, the networks began premièring shows throughout the year, rather than just in the fall; running them for “short arcs” of only ten or twelve episodes; and putting on serial dramas and reality shows, which can’t profitably be aired in repeats. These changes meant that the networks were often abandoning their expectation of vast profits from the “back end”—the sale of a hit show into syndication—although they began to recoup by selling DVDs of shows like “24” and “The Office.”

The biggest development was that the “linear” viewing model—in which people watched “Lost” when it aired, Wednesdays at 9 P.M. on ABC—started to give way to the “on-demand” model, in which people watched “Lost” whenever and wherever they wanted to: on TiVo systems, iPods, or P.C.s, which swiftly routed them to an illegal P2P download, or to (which began streaming episodes a few weeks ago), or to a montage of the show’s best scenes on YouTube, a video bazaar where viewers were likely to forget about “Lost” altogether as they watched grassroots “content”—skateboard wipeouts, say, created by “sk8hed,” from Bakersfield.

More here.