Television: The Next Victim of the Advertising Famine

For viewers, the beauty of modern cable is this: You have hundreds of diverse channels to choose from. For advertisers, the problem with modern cable is this: You have hundreds of diverse channels to choose from! So how do you target the same number of consumers?

The theory of modern media consumption is that what we watch/see/read for free is underwritten by advertising. Media produces content, we pay attention to it, companies want our attention -- and that's advertising. But today there is just so much media -- nichefied and decentralized like never before. Fifty years ago popular shows grabbed three times (or more) the market share they do today. How does a company expect to make money by advertising to a fractured and sundry crowd, spread thin as white linen across the channel buffet? And that's not even to mention TiVo. They have to change.

Seth Stevenson, Slate's ad writer, details the coming revolution. Here's the big takeaway:

(Expect) the gradual demise of the classic, 30-second TV spot, which has been the lifeblood of major agencies for half a century ... Advertising will need to be less about displaying hip imagery and implanting mood associations and more about interacting with consumers online, analyzing their complaints and desires (as revealed in their blog posts and Web site comments), and providing utilitarian information to those who seek it out.

Stevenson says TV networks have two other bold options: Start making more TV shows online-only to cut down on costs or (gulp) consider charging for subscriptions like HBO.

But the truth is that television's crisis isn't just an ad crisis. It's also a content crisis. In an age where you can watch television shows as a unified narrative -- a full season on Hulu or a few seasons on TiVo -- it calls into questions whether serialized television is necessarily the best way to consume those stories in the first place. As Michael Hirschorn wrote in the Atlantic a few months ago:

More and more Americans are watching more and more video online for longer and longer periods of time, so it stands to reason that sooner or later, someone is going to raise their own money, shoot their own full length show (half hour to an hour long) withoutnetwork interference, put it on the internet, and it will become a cultural phenomenon.

Television is facing a Catch-22. The demand for new content experiences will only continue to stretch their audience across platforms. You can watch 30 Rock on Hulu,, DVDs, TiVo and, oh yeah, the old fashioned teevee box. That stretching of audiences (already diluted by cable's buffet) means Stevenson's clarion call isn't the last you'll hear about the new ad crisis in television.