Multi-tasking key as modern media consumption evolves

The Atlantic’s headline didn’t equivocate: “Cable TV is doomed,” it blared, concluding that the Federal Communications Commission’s ambitious broadband plans will “accelerate the demise of cable television as the standard method of consuming television.”

Lord knows, media history has been filled with “killer apps” — as in new applications and devices that kill off existing ones, whether it was the eight-track giving way to the cassette or the DVD player supplanting the VCR.

Based on that logic, cable news’ days are clearly numbered, which explains why a savvy company like Comcast was so determined to find a content-producing acquisition — first chasing Disney, then NBC Universal. Predicating one’s fortunes on a guy crawling around under the house installing wires — or on the roof hooking up a satellite dish, for that matter — seems silly when the same payload can be delivered without all the fuss.

And yet…

Modern media consumption keeps evolving in unprecedented and unforeseen ways, with an emphasis on multitasking — using various forms at once — defying any traditional formula. And with younger generations even more immersed in the notion of go-anywhere, watch-anytime video, their behavior and expectations are so unlike what we’ve known before, it’s hardly safe to assume they’ll adhere to past patterns.

Just consider these interesting but, when viewed together, potentially confusing studies issued this month:

  • Knowledge Networks reports that Internet usage to watch full TV episodes has tripled since 2006 among those age 13 to 54 in the U.S., based on a panel of 1,900 web users.

    At first blush, that’s terrible news for cable, satellite and telco distributors. Except that subscriptions via those avenues has never been higher.

  • Nielsen’s latest three-screen report found that during the fourth quarter of 2009, simultaneous use of the web and TV use rose 35% compared to the previous quarter. Moreover, almost three-fifths of respondents said they surf the web while watching TV at least once a month.

    As Nielsen media product leader Matt O’Grady noted in the company’s analysis, “something quite different” is happening from initial fears that the Internet and mobile video would “slowly cannibalize traditional TV viewing.” This year, in fact, has witnessed TV viewership surges for big events like the Super Bowl, Oscars and Grammys.

    In other words, perusing YouTube videos of adorable pets and just-missed cable news snafus is complementing the TV experience, not replacing it.

  • ESPN announced plans for an exhaustive multiplatform research campaign, starting with the World Cup, seeking to measure every conceivable media outlet — not just TV and the web, but radio, mobile and print — and cross-referencing them with advertiser effects and purchasing habits. It’s an interesting proposition, mostly because it reminds us how little we know, even now, as to precisely how all these moving parts fit together.

So what’s the magic formula?

Nobody knows for sure. Obviously, clunky old methods of content delivery appear destined to be elbowed aside by some form of what we once quaintly labeled a “video jukebox,” with virtually any program available on demand, feeding directly into the TV or an alternative screen.

Yet cable companies have been experimenting along with everyone else to grab a piece of that future, from Time Warner and Comcast’s “TV Everywhere” push to Cablevision’s announcement of 3-D telecasts. Depending on how such initiatives pan out, cable might not be any more “doomed” than network TV — which in some respects, however improbably, is currently doing quite well.

Then again, the urge to concretely identify losers has something to do with the hyperbole creeping into even respected publications, motivated by a desire to make the sort of sweeping proclamations that enhance Web traffic. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, for example, ran under the head “The War on Drugs Is Doomed,” suggesting that cable operators who support vigorous drug-law enforcement must be doubly screwed.

Granted, rushing out to invest in a cable company certainly feels like a dicey proposition. That said, nobody should be surprised if the smart and lucky ones find ways to adapt and survive. Because right now, it’s all about evolution — and while the outcome remains a mystery, those determined to swim rather than sink had better possess the capacity to develop fins.

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