Everyone's Watching Less Network TV: Guess What They're Doing Instead

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Family not watching TVPrime time isn't what it used to be.

Fresh data from ratings tracker Nielsen shows an alarming drop in television viewership. ABC, Fox, CBS and NBC have combined for a 9 percent drop in viewers in the coveted 18-to-49 age bracket since the fall season began on Sept. 24.

Media executives are worried, and rightfully so. Only Comcast's (CMCSA) NBC is better off than where it was a year ago, up a sharp 23 percent. However, it's hard for NBC to celebrate when Disney's (DIS) ABC is down 7 percent, CBS (CBS) is off by 18 percent, and News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox is down by a brutal 26%.

If there are fewer folks tuning in to network television, that will make it that much harder for NBC to sustain its gains in the future.

Cable and DVRs and Facebook, Oh My

There are some reasonable explanations behind the drop, and that's before debating the actual quality of the shows that the four major networks are airing these days.

Let's start with cable networks.

All the shows generating any kind of buzz -- "Walking Dead," "Breaking Bad," "American Horror Story" -- are on cable networks, where they can get away with the edgier programming that traditional broadcasters can't. Then we get to the premium movie channels that have evolved into hubs of high-end programming including "Homeland," "Boardwalk Empire," and "Game of Thrones."

It's hard for the over-the-air commercial networks to compete, so perhaps it's no wonder that they have resorted to costly sports programming or filling their schedules with reality shows that are cheaper to produce than another watered-down sitcom or drama.

DVRs, on-demand viewing, and online streams have also spread out the way that we consume conventional prime-time programming.

World Wide Web Watching

What about all of the time that folks spend online? Facebook (FB) now has a billion active users, and more than half of them are spending time on the site on any given day. Time spent strolling through friend status updates or following links to viral videos is entertainment.

Netflix (NFLX) could be an even bigger problem. The leading video service is now serving up more than a billion hours of content a month. It can't all be incremental. Some of it has to come at the expense of traditional TV consumption.

It won't be easy for the four major networks to win back the viewers that they're losing. The trends are real, and they may not be reversible.



Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article except for Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has bought calls on Facebook. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Facebook, Walt Disney, and Netflix and creating a bear put ladder position in Netflix.


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freethedems2012

We don't get much for our money. In the old days commercials were ONE MINUTE long. Now it seems they take up most of the time.

December 12 2012 at 4:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
blj1942

BOY, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF WALKING OVER AND TURNING ON YOUR TV SET AND SIT AND WATCH A GOOD SHOW, I UNDERSTAND WARRIOR'S VIEW TO A DEGREE, I DON'T MIND HAVING TO PAY FOR SOME SHOWS, BUT, NETWORK TV IS NOTHING BUT SPORTS, REALITY SHOWS, SO CALLED HOW TO BE BEAUTIFUL, IN OTHER WORDS SELLING MAKE-UP PRODUCTS, YUCK, QUITE SICKENING. WHAT ABOUT THE ELDERLY, I AM SURE THEY DON'T SIT AND WATCH NOTHING BUT FOOTBALL, GOLF, BASKETBALL, SOCCER, SWIMMING, NEED I SAY MORE. THERE ARE MANY ESPN SHOWS THAT WILL DO THAT , BUT, THEY KEEP CRAMMING DOWN OUR THROATS ON NETWORK TV. UNTIL THEY CHANGE THERE VIEWING METHODS , I WILL JUST HAVE TO PAY TO WATCH A GOOD TV SHOW, STEAM ABOUT IT , BUT AT LEAST IT'S A SHOW, NOT THEIR SPORTS, AND ENDLESS COMMERCIALS, SPEAKING OF WHICH, THEY SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES, ADVERTISING WRECKING BEAUTIFUL CARS, THROWING AWAY TV'S AND OTHER THINGS OVER A MOUNTAIN, FOR LACK OF A BETTER WORD FOR THE PLACE THEY ARE DOING THIS STUPID COMMERCIAL, THROWING AWAY FOOD, PEOPLE HALF STARVING TO DEATH WOULD GIVE THEIR EYE TEETH TO EAT, BUT I GUESS THEY THINK PEOPLE ARE STUPID ENOUGH TO GO OUT AND BUY THEIR PRODUCTS AFTER SHOWING WHAT THEY THINK IS GOOD ADVERTISING. TRUST ME, I WOULDN'T BUY ONE PRODUCT THAT HAS BEEN ADVERTISED THAT WAY, TALK ABOUT STUPID, ADVERTISERS HAD BETTER TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT WHAT THEY ARE DOING. I DO NOT BELIEVE I AM THE ONLY PERSON WHO FEELS THIS WAY, WELL, IT FELT GOOD TO PUT IN DOWN IN WORDS AND KNOW THAT SOME PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY READ THIS AND MAYBE AGREE A LITTLE BIT WITH WHAT I AM SAYING. SO GOODBYE NETWORK TV, UNTIL YOU WAKE UP, I WILL CONTINUE TO PAY FOR BEING ABLE TO WATCH SOME GOOD TV WITHOUT ALL THE COMMERCIALS, AND STUPID PROGRAMMING YOU THINK IS WORTH WATCHING. OH, AND I AGREE WITH ALOT OF THE FOLLOWING COMMENTS..

December 12 2012 at 12:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Warrior

Regardless of what anyone else on the planet does; I will NOT give up FREE Network TV. Even before I became unemployed 7 months ago; I was watching "FREE" broadcast HDTV. Several years ago; during the Analog-HDTV switch; many of the large cable and satellite TV networks tried to lobby Congress to pass legislation to have people pay for the free HDTV reception they were supposed to receive for free, by using an over the air broadcast antenna. After 911, the government said it wanted to switch to HD signals; and, free up "broadcast" analog signals for emergency use. Those are the signals people can normally receive for free, with an antenna, like rabbit ears. Many of us do NOT like PAY cable or satellite TV, that have us pay for numerous garbage stations, and all the same thing on premium stations. The new HDTV signals would give better reception to the consumer who could receive them. The government gave people an allownace for 2 "Analog-HD converter boxes" per household, so their old analog TV's could still be used with the new signals. Shortly after the new HDTV. SHORTLY AFTER THAT, CABLE AND SATELLITE NETWORKS ATTEMPTED TO PULL A FAST ONE ON THE AMERICAN PUBLLC, BY LOBBYING CONGRESS TO PASS LEGISLATION, SO THAT THE ONLY WAY PEOPLE COULD RECEIVE THE BROADCAST SIGNALS, WAS IF THEY USED CABLE OR SATELLITE COMPANIES. TWO YEARS AGO, THEY ATTEMPTED ANOTHER FAST ONE. THEY TRIED TO GET THE GOVERNMENT TO PUT THE FREE BROADCAST SIGNALS UP FOR AUCTION, SO THE GOVERNMNET COULD HELP BALLANCE THE BUDGET! WHY SHOULD I PAY FOR SOMETHING I AM SUPPOSED TO BE GETTING FOR FREE; THAT WAS SET UP BY THE GOVERNMENT WITH MY TAX DOLLARS???!!! THIS ARTICLE IS PROPAGANDA BY THE CABLE AND SATELLITE TV NETWORKS!!!

December 12 2012 at 7:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jhrooney

I submit that the major networks are so consumed with providing of "Revelant Programing," or what Hollywood consider relevant they are killing themselves. Many of want to watch television for entertainment, not a treatise on today's society. We get enough of that all day long. The lack of good entertainment, is one reason Netflix does so well. The other night I happen to watch Miracle, on AMC. That was the story of the US Olympic Hockey team that beat the Soviet for the gold in 1980. It was a nice show, no sex, nobody getting strangled, or abused. It was just a good story, and the networks forgot that is what TV was about.

December 11 2012 at 8:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Slick Rick

Nothing but commercials, 30 minute show, 24 minutes of commercial.

December 11 2012 at 8:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rick

Network TV has too many reruns. About 8 new shows in the fall and then 8 new shows in the spring. Really!!!
and then the amount of commercials. OH MY!!!

December 11 2012 at 7:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eulerckt

I tired of the repetition. Networks countered by making it tacky repetition.
Then they force us to watch commercials dance across the screen during the show...not to mention that most of them assume we don't know which station we are watching. So they do us a favor and run that in a lower corner.
I did get a response from one network...stating that a recent poll showed viewers LIKED that kind of distraction during the show!!!
I DON'T WANT TO MULTI-TASK WHEN I'M TRYING TO RELAX you ignorant network pencil necks!!
My TV is now mostly local news and streamed movies.....I borrow a season of the shows I WANT to watch from my local library.

December 11 2012 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
aljoramaggio

By shortening the show's "season" from what was once 26 weeks, down to 13 weeks, viewers are less apt to follow the show the next season. Just as they are finally in a rhythm, and getting to know the characters, the show is "off the air."
You don't start a new series in September, have it end before Thanksgiving, and expect people to hang around for it to come on next fall. By then, most are following something else - they are on to the "next, best thing."

December 11 2012 at 6:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
zx2x9

Mr PP has it right. Put in the fact that even if a show is popular it might get cut because it needed more time to be a hit. You are so right : "4. SHOWS ALWAYS BEING PREEMPTED/MOVED AROUND, so audiencs can't find the show again and lose interest. "
That is how they kill shows. I remember several shows that were "murdered" by that tactic including Star Trek.
Another point: keep the shows on long enough for us to discover it. There is a lot more competition for the viewer's time today.

December 11 2012 at 6:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
aljoramaggio

They're all the same, the same, the same. How about re-introducing a variety show, once again?
The reality shows are crowding out scripted ones.
The seasons have been shortened from 26 weeks to about 13.
People are less likely to follow the show for another season, if they were just getting into it in September, it was over before Thanksgiving, and unlikely to air again until the following fall.
It's 5 minutes of show, to 7 minutes of commercials.

December 11 2012 at 6:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply