Yesterday I mentioned that while audience fragmentation has been overstated, it may keep shows from becoming true monster hits like The Cosby Show or Seinfeld. The Economist‘s “special report” on television viewing habits at one point tries to debunk the idea of niche or fragmented-audience television, but in a strange way it confirms that idea. The main point of the story is that no matter how many new and exciting ways we have to watch television programming, most of us continue to do it in the usual way: watching an actual television set at the time the program originally airs, usually in the company of other people. But one of the subsidiary points is that the rise of alternative viewing methods has created a situation where people can watch only the shows they really want to watch (since it doesn’t matter whether a particular show airs at an inconvenient time), meaning that there’s a bigger separation between the biggest hits and everything else. A decade ago, there wasn’t that much of a spread between the number one show and the number ten show. Today, the very biggest hits crush everything else, even shows that are doing well:
In the 1999-2000 season the most popular thing on American broadcast TV was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, a game show. Every Tuesday evening it pulled in 28.5m viewers. But the rest were not far behind. The 10th most popular show that season attracted 63% of “Millionaire’s” audience, or 18m viewers. Even the 100th most popular show still got 30% of the top figure. By the 2008-09 season the also-rans had tumbled. The top show, “American Idol”, had 25.5m viewers. The 10th most popular programme pulled in 55% of its audience and the 100th most popular show just 20%. Relatively, the hits are becoming bigger.
That sounds to me like an acknowledgement that it’s harder to create a mass-audience hit than it used to be only 10 years ago. The few shows that are true mass phenomena, like American Idol, stand out in a landscape where everything else is basically a moderate hit.
I would use a sports analogy here, except it’s the exact opposite of what happens in sports. In baseball, there are no more .400 hitters, but there are fewer .200 hitters: as the overall athletic standard increases, the difference between the best and worst players becomes less. In television, the big hits aren’t as widely watched as the hits of the past, but they dominate the lesser shows even more than they used to.
Anyway, as I said, that’s not the main focus of the article. It’s mostly about why “live” viewing continues to be the basic form of TV viewing. (To the point that even people who say they watch most of their TV in other media may not be accurately describing their own habits.) The reason is what you’d probably expect: TV, like most forms of entertainment, is something people tend to want to experience with other people, and families still gather around the TV set to watch their favourite programs.