Could changes in advertising kill television?

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 10 2009 12:07 PM

Is Television Over?

An intriguing new book about the ad recession's next victim.

If you love to hate ads, you might enjoy two new books that train their sights on modern marketing. The first makes the case that advertising as we know it is about to be obliterated. The second suggests that we should all dance a gleeful polka on its grave.

In The Chaos Scenario, Bob Garfield—ad critic for Advertising Age and co-host of the NPR show On the Media—argues that the long-standing, two-way partnership between advertising and content is due for a violent rejiggering. This notion is a familiar one by now, but Garfield asserts that the big ad agencies and media companies haven't yet managed to fully internalize it. (Particularly television networks, which have so far weathered the storm in a way that newspapers haven't.) Garfield also claims that the painful consequences of this upheaval will extend to you, the content consumer. You've probably already noticed the punishing body blow delivered to your local newspaper after once-lucrative advertising niches such as classifieds and real estate got eaten by the Internet. Garfield's feeling is that your beloved television shows will soon meet a similar fate.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

There are now hundreds of cable channels and any number of captivating items to look at on the Web. As a result, the television audience is scattering. In 2008, Garfield notes, a top-rated TV drama like The Mentalist might have been watched by 3.2 percent of the U.S. population in a given week. Fifty years ago, a top drama like Gunsmoke would have been routinely watched by three times as many Americans percentagewise. It's much harder these days for a major advertiser to find the concentrated mass of eyeballs it needs to reach in order to boost its sales numbers. Garfield argues that those most affected by this sea change haven't yet faced up to the new reality.

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Television networks, for example—which, though not as widely watched as they used to be, are still the only place to go to find eyeballs in any concentration at all—have so far been able to keep revenues relatively intact by charging higher rates per viewer while reaching fewer viewers. The rug is due to be pulled out from under them. The upshot, in Garfield's view: a vicious cycle in which television audiences fragment, so advertisers stop paying big bucks to run commercials on TV shows, so the funding for the shows dries up, so the quality of the shows declines, so the audience begins to flee even faster.

I'm not sure I buy the part about quality playing a role in audience behavior. Not when a show like The Bachelorette is a ratings winner. (Garfield might argue that even tripe like this offers network-level production values and thus requires a production budget that soon won't be sustainable.) But it seems reasonable to assume that advertisers will at some point refuse to pay hefty fees to capture ever-shrinking slices of the population. Eventually—and in fact, it's already happening—they'll find other uses for their marketing dollars.

This means there will be no one to foot the bill for your favorite high-quality show, unless 1) it's on a premium channel like HBO, where the revenue comes from subscriptions instead of ads, or 2) it's a bunch of webisodes, made on a shoestring, that air on YouTube and don't require a deep-pocketed sponsor. For now, 1 is much more likely than 2. While there's no doubt some terrific low-budget stuff that's being made for the Web—and this stuff will certainly get better and better—at this point, not a lot of it compares to The Wire. Or, for that matter, The Mentalist. (To paraphrase a joke I recently heard somewhere: What do you call a homemade video that holds your attention for 20 minutes? A celebrity sex tape.)

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