By Cat McCarrey, Staff Writer
When was the last time you watched live TV?
Think about it. I understand if you need a minute or two. Going back that far in time is quite the stretch.
Now let me ask one more question: Was this live viewing experience on network, or cable?
Odds are, it was on cable. If one bothers watching live TV (rather than torrenting or waiting until tomorrow to hit up Hulu or HBO Go), it’s most likely for the latest must-see drama on cable. It’s watching to stay up to the minute with “Game of Thrones.” It’s seeing what’s going down on the MTV Video Music Awards. But actually watching “New Girl” as it airs? Not as important.
It’s all part of network television’s continuous descent in significance as the world of television morphs to fit a changing society. Every year, network programming comes in last, both with viewership and the prestige that comes from awards season. And each attempt to stay afloat decisively sinks.
It looks like a numbers game. In 1969, 125 million American people watched the moon landing. The event was an indication of era. Or so argued the latest “Mad Men” episode “Waterloo,” where a precious five minutes of the 50-minute show were spent watching characters watching astronauts, groups riveted to a televised event that served as a grounding point for a generation.
“Waterloo” netted a live viewership of 1.3 million, growing to 3.6 million if we count DVR views from the three days following airing. This was considered a success. The top five rated programs of that same week, according to Nielsen Ratings for May 24, 2014, are all NBA playoff games.
Those NBA games netted around 5 million viewers. Twenty years before that, in 1994, the highest rated show was “Seinfeld,” with an estimated audience of 19 million.
If “Mad Men” took place today, there would be no uniting program, no moon landing. There might be a YouTube video with millions of hits, but there’s nothing to ground us in moments of time.
Cable and on-demand programming are partly to blame for the network’s inability to keep up. Prestige cable shows and the immediacy of on demand give the audience more class and more options, and networks can’t compete.
But what networks are failing to anticipate, or even notice, are the changing rules of television. Somehow, those in charge see the masses of the general public choosing it their way and do nothing. They function as though the live viewing audience matters, when in fact those massive numbers of the past are gone. They should be appealing to the viral nation, the generation of web viewing.
To be fair, this fall’s lineup reflects some slight attention to social media complaints about last year’s lackluster programming. There is more racial diversity (“Black-ish,” “American Crime,” “How to Get Away With Murder”). There are more examples of women-led shows (“Bad Judge,” “The Mysteries of Laura,” and again, “How to Get Away With Murder”). However, the actual programs themselves still feature middle-of-the-road jokes and broad storytelling that strives to appeal to everyone, but pleases no one. They are weak offerings that highlight the decline of a once-powerful conglomeration. This season promises more gleeful rubbernecking at the slow crash and burn of the networks.