The remote control ushered in the age of the channel surfer, but that wave may be ready to crash.
While couch potatoes watch as much TV as ever, they’re no longer apt to graze around the dial.
That’s partly because a 1,000-channel universe takes the fun out of hopping around. But the real keys are new technology: DVRs, video on demand and, crucially, on-screen program guides are changing the loving relationship between a viewer and his TV set.
No longer is the viewer passive about programming changes, surfing through the networks for watch-whatever’s-on viewing. Now viewers control what they see.
Though only about 8% of the population have DVRs such as TiVo, those numbers are expected to boom in the coming years. And most homes have on-screen program guides, which allow viewers to quickly find the show they want to watch, without having to trip over other channels to get there.
That could have an impact on smaller broadcast and cable outlets, some of which depend on viewers stumbling across their programs while hunting for something to watch.
“A lot of rerun movies and repeats of old TV shows that have already been on the air 10 times are going to be on the losing end of this equation,” says David Poltrack, exec VP of research and planning at CBS.
The remote control was patented by Zenith in 1950, but didn’t really saturate American homes until the early 1980s. But in the past 25 years, it has dominated American viewing habits and now 99% of TVs are sold with a remote control.
But these days, remotes aren’t just for flipping through channels or adjusting the TV volume. Modern zappers are a complicated system of buttons that allow cable viewers to jump to their favorite channel immediately, and serve as a gateway to pre-recorded favorites for DVR users.
As viewers more carefully select what they want to watch, the serendipity of coming across an attention-grabbing documentary or long-forgotten sitcom may be lost.
The demise of surfing could be bad news for lower-rated, lesser quality shows and repeats, but it’s a boon for the top-rated programs.
“There will probably be a bigger gap between the top 20 shows and the bottom 20 shows, the ones at the bottom of the list that rely on channel surfing,” Poltrack says.
Blame — or thank — the rise of digital video recorders like TiVo and the rollout of video-on-demand services throughout the country.
Remember when Bruce Springsteen complained about surfing the dial and finding “57 Channels and Nothin’ On”?
Now, Bruce probably immediately tunes to those unwatched “Sopranos” episodes still stuck on his TiVo hard drive, rather than clicking to see what’s actually on.
“There’s no longer least objectionable programming,” says ABC research topper Mike Mellon. “People will have 30 to 40 hours saved to watch — they’ll just go to the box.”
Granted, just a fraction of homes are using a DVR or are taking advantage of video on demand. But more immediately, Poltrack says he’s already seeing evidence of a decline in channel surfing because of onscreen program guides.
Those guides, which more or less killed off TV Guide magazine as we knew it, allow viewers to simply scroll up and down a menu to see what’s on TV right now.
Rather than flip and stumble across something that catches their eye, viewers are now more likely to find what they want via that guide, which is built into their satellite or cable box.
“All of this is clearly reducing the amount of surfing, or what I call ‘incidental viewing,’ ” Poltrack says. “The more accessible major programs are, the less likely viewers will be searching for something.”
That’s because, thanks to program guides, viewers are finding the big-event, popular and highly promoted stuff quicker — and by name. And in DVR households, they’re watching more episodes of those top-rated shows.
That leaves no time to check out the less compelling stuff.
“It will reduce the amount of programming on little-known channels, or channels without much voice in the marketplace,” says Tim Brooks, exec veep of research at Lifetime. “It favors the big over the small.”
That means branding will be even more important in a marketplace where fewer viewers hunt for shows.
“Even today on Lifetime, we find that if we introduce a show, no matter what the show is, it will get sampling,” Brooks says. “That’s because our viewers know tonally the kind of shows we do.
“This new world could be a very good one for the networks that are branded, that stand for something, instead of just being a collection of programs,” Brooks adds. “That’s where the magazine world has gone, where retailing has gone.”
Brooks, though, doesn’t believe we’ll see viewers drop their channel surfing habits overnight. Noting how few viewers ever figured out how to program their VCR, he says auds aren’t interested in planning out their viewing.
“Fundamental viewing habits are hard to change,” he says. “With all this new technology, you’ll see a subset of the very engaged who will use them, and we’ll find business models to make money after that. But TV is a very casually consumed medium.”
Still, Brooks admits that the way people watch TV is changing, and that outlets can’t rely on viewers simply finding their goods anymore.
“Those who are not able to forge an identity will be out in the cold,” he says.