Is Internet Changing Television Content?

I grew up without television, excepting the occasional episode of The Andy Griffith Show, and as an adult I tried cable for a bit but dropped it, feeling choked by the undiscerning options.

Now, when I want to watch something I use Hulu. I click off an episode the moment it becomes offensive and if I don’t like a commercial ad I turn the sound off and shift to a different tab and do some reading or writing or something. Sometimes I just run an episode in the background. It can pull me in if it has what I want.

I’ve been thinking about how internet-based television changes things. I’m sure it makes advertising more expensive because people simply won’t watch an ad that fails to entertain them. (The new Ragu commercials are pretty good and also provide an instance of popular poetry that makes money. Heh. I wonder if an MFA wrote that jingle or not?)

But it changes things in another sense as well. Often shows that are really very good are cancelled when a network doesn’t get the ratings needed to entice advertisers. Perhaps the most infamous example is Firefly, a Joss Whedon stroke of genius whose fans were so enraged when it was prematurely cancelled that a really good movie resulted (Serenity.)

People may wonder how the ratings work. I believe there are different companies that provide ratings data, but the one I know about is Arbitron, which randomly chooses people to wear meters during every waking moment; the meters pick up some kind of sound signature from any registered channel the person listens to during the day. Each person represents some thousands of viewers/listeners.

I’ve wondered about this since I found out about it. It may be reasonably accurate but one wonders whether certain shows – the more intelligent or creative ones, perhaps – get a short shrift. After all, why would a really successful person bother to earn 15 dollars a month wearing a meter around all day every day?

Now, however, networks and other business making televisions shows (Hulu has several excellent shows that appear exclusively on its own website – The Booth At The End, for instance, is pretty intense but probably wouldn’t have survived on a broadcast network) have to think about more than the immediate money-making potential of a show. They have to think about shelf-life, as well – to borrow a publishing term.

Sure, Friends and Seinfeld are still making advertising money, so that was always a consideration. But now the reruns of lesser-known shows are also building an audience online, many years after they ended on broadcast television. Anyone can find a Hulu show – not just a subscriber to some obscure cable channel.

And the number of clicks on a website is surely a far more accurate indicator of who’s watching what – and therefore, which shows are actually successful – than the most scientifically devised long term study based on random sample.

Perhaps television shows will become increasingly divided between smart-shows and idiot-fare.

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