Here's the good news for TV fans: You're not alone. • Figures from Nielsen Media Research show that the average American watched 151 hours of television each month in the fourth quarter of 2008 — an all-time high. • But here's the problem: Network TV doesn't know how to make money off all this extra activity, and it is slowly destroying the way the big broadcast networks make profits, bringing seismic changes to the shows we all watch. • This week, as the networks reveal their fall schedules for the early ad-selling season called the "upfronts," all the networks' revenue is projected to dip as much as 20 percent from last year.
Like newspapers, TV outlets have more audience than ever in more corners of media — including cable channels, the TV streaming site Hulu.com and Apple's iTunes store. But they don't make nearly enough money on them.
"People love our product, but they're just everywhere and nowhere, you know?" said Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly, working the crowd at a Fox party in the trendy Los Angeles club My House in January. "For all the digital business we're nurturing along, it turns TV dollars into digital pennies. You wonder: Are you creating less incentive to watch your own channel?"
On Monday, Fox will be the first broadcast network to announce its new fall schedule in New York, followed by the remaining four networks. The TV industry seems poised on the lip of serious change — from NBC handing Jay Leno its entire 10 p.m. hour to the CW network giving up programming Sundays.
Increasingly, TV is no longer the great American hearth; viewers are seeking out television on their own terms, turning a mass medium into thousands of smaller niches that make less money.
And no one knows how to stop it.
"Soon, we're going to have a convergence where we're going to be watching TV on the same device that we have the Internet available to us," said Andy Borowitz, a humorist, author and former TV writer who created the NBC series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
"The networks' response to this has been to make their shows more Internet-savvy . . . which has the effect of reminding us that we'd rather be on the Internet than watch television," he said, predicting the death of regularly scheduled TV diced in 30- and 60-minute bits. "Movies, games, Xbox, Twitter . . . it all will be competing with television on the same screen. I just think it sort of spells the end of network TV as we know it."
As the industry prepares to start another revolutionary year, here are a few predictions for the future of television, based on conversations with a host of experts and a few hunches.
Network TV becomes more like cable TV; cable becomes more like networks.
NBC's decision to turn over the fall 10 p.m. slot to Leno had an added benefit: It cut down on the prime time hours the network has to fill.
Marc Berman, a ratings analyst at Mediaweek magazine, predicts networks like NBC will follow cable TV's lead, focusing on a limited number of hours in prime time and replacing failed new shows with reruns of popular series.
Berman expects Fridays, where only CBS draws real viewership, to feature more reruns, saving money for networks straining to fill 22 hours of programming weekly. And if Leno's show works, we'll see a return to the days of Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, with rival networks firing up their own comedy/variety shows to cut costs and reap viewers.
Meanwhile, cable channels are offering more original programming than ever, with TNT presenting a record seven new series this summer. "I think we're becoming more like the way TV networks are supposed to be, with a nice number of shows we can give our full attention," said Michael Wright, head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies.
But Borowitz predicts cable channels' success is just a pit stop on the way to a future where online TV viewing makes all TV scheduling obsolete. "It's what they call in the stock market a 'dead cat bounce,' " he added, laughing. "There's going to be room for quality TV, but the idea of these arbitrarily half-hour or hourlong shows scheduled on one night? There's no need for that anymore."
Mass TV viewing drops as audience is increasingly divided by generation and media habits.
Forget about TV events linking the country like the M*A*S*H finale. These days, the audience seems divided into three camps: old-school viewers who watch television traditionally; young people who have instinctively accepted the union of TV and the Internet, watching programs across up to 10 screens each day; and middle-aged users who tend to separate television and computer activity, but are increasingly melding the two.
This is another reason unscripted "reality TV" competitions such as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars still draw a crowd; young people still watch them, and the show's competitive aspect makes viewers less likely to watch episodes later online.
As competition gets fiercer, network TV gets blander.
"(M*A*S*H creator) Larry Gelbart once said to me, 'We're training the audience with what we put on TV,' " Borowitz said. "If you have a whole generation of kids (watching) Rock of Love, that becomes comedy for them. Or kids are getting their entertainment from YouTube, in a clip they're all sending to each other. So the audience is being trained very differently . . . which makes taking risks really difficult."
Eric Deggans' blog, the Feed, is at blogs.tampabay.com/media.