Linear TV Nostalgia

The other day I saw a fun video where a few teenagers were trying to figure out how to use a rotary dial telephone. They never did quite figure it out, but there’s no reason they should. It’s just another piece of old technology that has faded into history.

I recently wrote a blog about cord cutting and that got me to thinking that there is soon going to be a generation of kids who grow up without routinely experiencing linear TV. Linear TV has been part of most of my life. I remember when my family got our first black and white TV in 1957. It was a huge heavy console with a rounded screen that hummed from the many tubes that made it work.

We could only get three stations – WTOP which was CBS out of Washington DC, WBAL which was NBC out of Baltimore, and WTTG which was an independent station from Washington DC. WTTG was an interesting station – it’s the second oldest station in the country. They ran a lot of older programming and aired a steady diet of old stuff like the Three Stooges, Shirley Temple movies, and the Little Rascals. I didn’t realize until much later in life that other people my age didn’t see nearly as much of this older programming as we did. We were only able to watch ABC by climbing on the roof and fiddling with the antenna – doing so meant we lost the other stations. However, there would occasionally be a World Series game or other important sports event on ABC that would entice my father to climb onto the roof, quietly mumbling expletives.

It’s probably hard for kids today to understand how TV brought families together. There was no other source of live entertainment other than going to the movies, since even by the 50s most of the interesting programming was gone from radio. In our house there were a few evenings where we all watched TV together. With only two network stations available we watched the same shows every week. Sunday was the almost mandatory TV day. In the 1950s Sunday nights brought Lassie, The Jack Benny Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and then GE Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. By the 60s this became Lassie, Walt Disney, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Bonanza – a lineup that held in our house for many years.

We had a few other TV nights, except in the summertime when kids played outside until dark. I remember in the 50s we regularly watched shows like I Love Lucy, The Danny Thomas Show, The Red Skelton Show (my father’s favorite after Bonanza), and I’ve Got Secret. By the 60s this changed to new shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Perry Mason, Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Rawhide. As you can see by the lineup, there was family compromise, and everybody got to watch their favorite show.

In 1964 we got our first color TV to watch the seventh game of the World Series when Bob Gibson pitched against and beat the Yankees. It took my mother a few years to forgive my father for that impulse purchase. But this sure made a difference for watching shows like Walt Disney and sports. Before then we would occasionally watch football games at my Aunt Helen’s house since she had bought one of the first color TVs in the area (and she always had red velvet cake for halftime).

In 1968 we got a second TV, which went into a basement TV room, mostly to move some of the kid’s programming out of the living room. This new TV also let me watch things the rest of the family wasn’t interested in like the original Star Trek, ACC sports, and NBA basketball.

Somewhere during the 60s the ABC signal got stronger and we could routinely watch three networks. Around 1970 we added the little hoop antenna because two UHF stations became available to us. They mostly reran older series and movies, but it felt liberating to have a few more choices. We still only watched the major networks as a family in the evenings.

Keeping a TV operating was an artform. There was a pile of different-sized tubes in the back of the TV. It was fairly obvious when a tube failed, but a lot harder to spot one that had intermittent problems. The normal way to solve intermittent problems was to yank out all of the tubes and take them to a TV repair shop to be tested. The last resort was to take the whole TV to the shop where it might sit for several long weeks where there’d be no TV in the house.

It’s probably hard for kids today to believe that there was no remote control. Somebody had to get up and manually change the channel. However, with so few available channels we rarely changed the channel since we already knew what we were going to watch. Kids would also be surprised to learn that the networks went off the air after the late news – everybody from the station went home. Like most households, we got the TV Guide in the mail every week that told us what was upcoming. The main advantage of the TV Guide was to make sure not to miss specials – because networks didn’t cross-advertise and it was easy to miss a special TV event without the TV Guide.

Like the rest of America, the TV brought the world into our living room. One of the first big news events I recall clearly was watching Alaska join the US. We watched Walter Cronkite cover big events like the the Cuban misslile crisis, the Kenneday assassination, and the Vietnam War (where we had uncles and cousins fighting). We watched everything about the space race. I was a big fan of the political conventions which were raucous events in those days.

I’ve been a cord cutter now for a decade and I can no longer tolerate linear TV. I love the ability to pause and rewind with delayed TV and I’ve learned to love binge watching. But there was something special about the way that the TV influenced our lives when it was a new medium – something that is gone into history like the rotary dial phone.

Sports Programming is Still Ratings King

Super Bowl FootballI have been reading a lot about sports programming and its role in the cable industry. I will be writing a series of blogs that talk about different aspects of the sports programming business. For anybody that likes sports or anybody who thinks they are paying too much for cable this is pretty fascinating stuff.

The reason that sports programming is so important to the cable companies is that it is the only major source of programming that people still insist on watching live. Many cable broadcasters like ESPN and regional sports networks rebroadcast sporting events, but Nielsen reports that 96% of sports viewing is still done live. People are not interested in watching sports after everybody knows the winner.

Years ago before DVRs, TiVo and Netflix all programming was watched live. But that is no longer the case and a significant amount of TV viewing is done on a delayed basis. That matters to cable companies because the premium advertising revenues come from the live broadcast of a show with lower advertising (or often no advertising revenue) coming from subsequent airings. As an example, look at the numbers for the recent premiere episode of Fox’s top series Sleepy Hollow. A very impressive 10.1 million viewers watched it live when it was first aired. But another 5.2 million watched in on a delayed broadcast within the first 3 days. 2.8 million viewers have watched it on VOD after 4 days (a number that is still slowly growing). Finally, another 3.1 million viewers watched it on other platforms such as NetFlix. This means that the total viewers was 20.2 million, with only half of them watching it the day it was first aired. (And imbedded in that number are a significant number of millions who recorded the show on a DVR to watch later).

The percentage of delayed viewing varies widely by the type of content. Very popular shows like Sleepy Hollow actually have some of the higher percentages of same-day viewers and there is a lot of content where the majority of views are done on a delayed basis. Some shows, like the Daily Show on Comedy Central have promoted delayed viewing as a tactic to expand their appeal.

So the networks love sports programming because it’s a hook to get people watching them. And in the cable industry, eyeballs equates to advertising dollars. Advertisers like sports programming for several reasons. Perhaps primary is that it draws the younger male demographic in one of the few ways that advertisers can count on. But second is that it gets a lot of viewers. Let’s look at some of statistics.

The biggest draw on TV is always the Super Bowl. If you look back at the history of the most watched programs in TV history it is a mix of a few events like the last episode of Mash plus a big string of Super Bowls. In recent years the Super Bowl has gotten over 100 million viewers, which is off the charts for TV viewing.

And there are other sporting events that draw big audiences. If you look at TV events that draw over 30 million viewers in recent years you will find that it’s the Oscars, an occasional final episode of a popular TV series and sports events. To contrast this with only ten years ago, in 2004 less than half of the big drawing events were sports-related. So part of the story is not just that there are popular sporting events. Events like the Kentucky Derby, the Master’s golf tournament, the BCS football championship game or the NCAA basketball championship have always drawn well. But the number of big non-sporting events has dropped drastically due the number of people that now watch their entertainment on a delayed basis.

Of course, sports is not as predictable as the networks would like. There is a huge difference in ratings when the playoffs for football, baseball, basketball and even hockey involve teams from major US markets. For example, the current World Series is drawing over a 45% rating in Kansas City, as you would expect, but the series as a whole has a much lower rating than when the Yankees or some other major market team is involved.

But even with its unpredictability, sports programming is still the advertising king. It creates dozens of events each year that are will predictably have large numbers of viewers, and viewers of a demographic that is otherwise elusive. Sports is going to remain the darling of the broadcast world as long as the current broadcast model is in place.

Tomorrow: ESPN and a la carte programing.