The move away from traditional, or mainstream media is currently accelerating as more and more people switch to the internet for their information and entertainment. Sales of newspapers are declining, radio advertising is down, and television viewers are switching off in record numbers.
It's popular in the blogopshere to argue that newspapers will eventually fall, and radio is hardly popular. However, given the current marketplace, television will be the first traditional media medium to completely fail, where as radio has some life left in it yet. Newspapers will survive, but the newspaper of tomorrow will be markedly different.
The great Television switch off
The television switch off is real. In the United States, 2.5 million viewers switched off in the spring on 2008 compared to the same time in 2006. Statistically this is only a small percentage of the overall viewing audience, but among those still watching television, the amount of television they watch each day is declining.
The decline in television viewing is stronger among younger statistical groups. In Europe, a 2005 study from the European Interactive Advertising Association found almost half of 15- to 24-year-olds are watching less TV in favor of browsing the web. A study reported in The Guardian in 2007 headlined with "Young networkers turn off TV and log on to the web." The television switch off in the United States among younger people has seen the average age of a TV viewer increase to 50.
Tip of the iceberg
The remarkable thing in the decline of television is that we are yet to see broadscale adoption of a logical successor. Newspapers and magazines offer content driven websites, radio is being replaced by services such as Last.fm, but there is no clear alternative online to television. Previous television viewers seem happy to consume content from a large variety of online services, and although many are watching online video, few do so via the television screen. The experience of television isn't being replaced online, where as print media and radio is being substituted in familiar formats.
Netflix and Apple are two companies offering set top boxes that bring digital content to the television screen, but neither has caught the public's imagination. Consider that in the television switch off so far, the simplicity of television, as an entertainment and relaxation device has not truly been replaced.
We are however, at the tip of the iceberg. The convergence between online content and the television screen as an easy to use conduit for that content has begun.
Sony announced internet enabled television sets at CES in 2007, and is now offering the option across its Bravia product line. The startup ffwd is said to be in discussions with cable companies and other device makers to bring personalized online content delivery to the lounge room, and will soon be available on the Wii. TiVo now supports YouTube videos, as the Apple TV has for some time, along with Podcasts on demand.
When enough devices offer internet content, including television sets, the switch off from television will accelerate across more age groups. Ease of use and ease of access will change the viewing habits of billions globally in the next 10 years.
Why television will be the first to fall (and not newspapers or radio)
The television industry is already at the start of a slow, agonizing death spiral. As television viewers have switched off, networks spend less on creating content, switching to reality television and other cheap to make genres, causing even more people to switch off.
The New York Times, in an article on Harvard professor emeritus Richard E. Caves book "Switching Channels: Organization and Change in TV Broadcasting" explains it this way:
He points out that such incentives depend on the size of the potential market. The programming is a fixed cost — networks pay for the programs even if nobody watches. If paying an extra $1 million to get a star onto a show, for example, raises every customer's love of the show by the equivalent of $1, the investment more than pays off if there are 10 million potential viewers. But the $1 million investment would be a terrible flop if there were 10,000 potential viewers....
So the increase in reality programming is not just a matter of broadcasters wanting to save money. It's that a shrinking potential market gives the networks less incentive to spend money. They can't recoup it with enough viewers.
The problem with this pattern is that it's cyclical. Viewers decline, networks spend less, content quality is reduced, viewers decline.... It's a slow death spiral that ultimately can only result, eventually, in no audience as well
Newspapers will survive
In stark contrast to the television industry, the newspaper industry is best suited to last well into the foreseeable future. That newspapers are in decline is a fact, but what is often ignored is another important statistic: readership to newspapers online is increasing, and according to one source has resulted in a net increase in newspaper readership. The Newspaper Association of America notes record numbers for newspaper sites in 2007.
The switch to online newspapers is not even across all newspaper sites, so we will still see the sector shrink greatly in size from where it is today, however at the end of this decline, significant numbers of newspapers will remain, perhaps in 10 or 20 years time as online services only, without a print edition.
There is a very strong reason for why some newspapers will go the distance: There will always be a market for quality journalism. Bloggers and citizen journalists do a fine job, in many sectors, but a hierarchy of value that places leading newspaper titles such as the New York Times as leading sources of quality news will always remain. Couple this with the fact that most smart newspapers have also embraced blogging as well, blurring the lines between tradition and blogging. We can already see at the top of blogging little difference between a blog and newspaper, and that line will become further blended from both directions with time. Put simply, newspapers are changing with the times.
Radio will die, but not quite yet
The death of radio has long been predicted, even way back when television first launched, but it still goes on. Radio has two distinct advantages in lasting longer than television: mass consolidation has already taken place resulting in a low cost base, and car radio.
Consolidation of radio in the United States, lead by ClearChannel is well know. Journalism.org described it in their State of the News Media in 2004 as "the level of consolidation in radio exceeds that of most media," but failed to nominate the media it didn't exceed consolidation in. This consolidation of ownership, and content delivers a positive: of all traditional forms of media, radio is best suited to lasting over the short to medium turn due to its economies of scale. Where as television is seeing a downward spiral, radio as already gone through much of the cost cutting other forms of traditional media are experiencing relative to their decline in audience.
Radio also has one advantage in consumption: the car. Depending on which figures you consider, consumption of radio is anywhere from 50-80% in a car. Like television, there is no immediate replacement to radio, as a switch on, not having to think about choice. Many do play CD's or iPods, consumption is shifting, but people still listen to radio in their cars. The car advantage however is on borrowed time. More and more cars now come with iPod docking as standard, making it easier for people to play their own choice of content. Chrysler in introducing internet access to their cars, delivering all the possibilities access provides, but on the road. In 10-20 years time, the notion of tuning into a radio station, as many do today, will be considered old fashioned, and some where around this time, commercial radio will cease to be.
The content shift
Those arguing for the future of television regularly point out that somebody has to make content, and that television is best suited to create it. There's also the argument that much of the video consumed online is pirated content, and without television online video would be an empty wasteland. But they'd be wrong.
The internet is altering the distribution methods of content and enabling content creators to go direct to market online without the need for television as a conduit and financier. Many shows produced now for television are made by production companies, not television networks, and the smart ones are already producing exclusive online content.
The television networks are desperately trying to cater for an online audience, but if Google, a company defined by its skill in online advertising struggles to turn a profit from YouTube, what chance do television networks have in trying to compensate for their declining audience by shifting online. With thin margins, the need for a middleman in distributing content declines as content creators seek to profit directly and not share profits with others. This shift is hurting television now, and it will only accelerate with time.
I have some sadness for the death of television. Anyone in Generation X or older would have grown up with the medium, and spent countless hours on the couch watching it, and yet today, people worldwide are switching off. As younger viewers happily switch to their computers, forgoing the experience of a television set altogether, newer, more consumer friendly devices will deliver internet content to the broader population, often via the television screen, and the switch off of television networks will accelerate. By the time my (now 5 year old) son has children of his own, broadcast television will be a thing of the past, replaced instead by an always on society with the internet as a nearly unlimited smorgasbord of choice.
Update: just to clarify one point in this post that some seem to be confusing, and perhaps I wasn't clear enough. I am not suggesting that the experience of sitting around a large screen TV watching sport or other content is going to fall. It never will, but content delivery via broadcast television (ie television networks, or collectively the television media) will fall. There will always be a place for a television set in many lounge rooms, but that set in the future will be a conduit for digitally delivered, on-demand or custom mixed content, delivered over the internet, from many different providers.