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Wii may undermine TV business

No new shows may help gaming go mainstream

‘Twas Thanksgiving weekend, and all through the house

Not a network was viewed — Fox, Peacock nor Mouse.

For while people huddled around the TV

None watched the nets — They were all playing Wii.

For TV executives, this bit of verse might very well represent the Nightmare After Christmas — a macabre scenario of possible things to come as various forces line up against them.

Nintendo’s Wii has become this year’s Cabbage Patch doll — a participatory videogame console that’s so hard to find, there’s actually a website devoted to alerting panicked shoppers when one pops up online.

During the aforementioned Thanksgiving weekend, I had the opportunity to experience it — mostly because the folks with whom I stayed, most of them thirtysomething Ph.Ds. that advertisers salivate to reach, played the game virtually nonstop. (The only TV viewing was done by yours truly, sneaking in at night to catch the late ESPN college football games.)

Of course, we didn’t just dabble in Wii, whose boxing is a workout in itself and where the golf has a wicked dog-leg left par five. There was a bit of Halo 3 thrown in too, which only demonstrated that my hand-eye coordination is better suited to watching “Heroes” than being one.

Churning out an estimated 1.8 million consoles a month worldwide, Nintendo is racing to keep pace with demand. Even so, plenty of young adults will find Wii or its equivalent in their holiday stockings — a period that will mark the beginning of an extended stretch in which many of that audience’s favorite TV shows are furloughed, courtesy of the Writers Guild strike.

Although this shouldn’t be construed as another one of those misguided “The death of everything” predictions, this confluence of events could speed the vexing migration of younger demos away from traditional TV. Deprived of “Heroes,” Grey’s Anatomy” and “24,” couch potatoes might take comfort in the arms of the gaming industry, plugging in consoles to supplant that dramatic adrenaline rush.

As if to further symbolize the shift, the International CES mounted by the Consumer Electronics Assn. is increasingly the hot ticket for entertainment glitterati in January, while NATPE — the TV confab that follows it in Vegas by a few weeks — has settled in as a scaled-down confab compared with its heyday, as we were reminded by obituaries for King World impresario Roger King.

For years the larger-than-life King, who died at age 63, personified the showmanship and excess that defined NATPE, from the lavish parties featuring high-profile musical acts (Elton John, the Eagles) to the sprawling booths the house built by “Oprah” and “Wheel of Fortune” erected on the convention floor. Yet even before King’s death, CBS (which absorbed King World) announced plans to skip the convention, while performers such as Jerry Seinfeld and Tony Bennett will entertain the assembled tech nerds at CES, courtesy of Sony.

In the long term, the risks posed to TV as gaming goes more mainstream are worth monitoring. Because while someone who flips to cable channels or rents more DVDs to tide them over during the strike easily can be wooed back, consumers who spend $250 or considerably more for Wii or another console have an initial incentive to maximize their enjoyment of that investment — at least before the novelty fades.

In addition, games are dipping into the media-buying pie. Some research firms forecast that in-game advertising will grow dramatically over the next five years, and Nielsen and Sony announced an initiative to measure such advertising earlier this year. Granted, those ads still represent a relatively small beachhead compared with television, but they appear more significant considering games provide a logical venue for certain marketers to contact teens and young men, the most elusive (and thus lucrative) of audience segments.

No wonder that the popularity of Wii (pronounced wee, by the way) could be the prelude to a prolonged wail among TV execs, especially if it hastens widening gaming’s reach beyond its traditional core.

So if you work in TV

These words offer a fright:

“My tube is aglow, but I’m Wii’ing tonight.”

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