Are content restrictions helping kill broadcast television?

We’ve covered the decline of network television previously; people are switching off traditional television stations as alternative outlets offer better choice, the choice is richer online and on cable, and as viewers switch off, income is reduced, creating a cycle of reduced quality of what’s left, driving even more people to switch off.

But could restrictions on “decency” be driving the switch off in the United States? Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture and television at Syracuse University thinks that it is, telling Wired:

“Without a doubt, the business model of network television is suffering from competition with other channels who operate with fewer content restrictions..his country’s obsession with not uttering naughty words and not talking about s-e-x is borderline psychotic. Strike that, it is psychotic.”

Noted in the article are hit shows that could only have been shown on cable: The Sopranos, Sex & The City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds and Mad Men. Betsy Schiffman adds “And not only is the public accepting of the adult content, many people pay to watch it.”

Content restrictions act as an artificial inhibitor on broadcast television to offer freely shows that people want to watch, denying them the ability to maximize profit.

Having these restrictions doesn’t help, but it’s also not the main reason viewers are switching off. The stringent restrictions in the United States, best demonstrated in the Superbowl Nipplegate saga of 2004, are not typical of broadcasting markets worldwide (for example you can see full frontal nudity on Australian TV, and shows including The Sopranos, Weeds, Oz and Dexter have been shown on FTA TV) and yet commercial broadcasters globally (perhaps with some exceptions) are all suffering from a switch off of viewers. US broadcasters may have a commercial disadvantage here, but ultimately the switch is to watching shows on demand, or to providers who offer many streams of content, such as Cable. The audience is fragmenting, the long tail is now being applied to video content, and the days of show it and they will watch it are passing.

Easing restrictions on what can be shown on broadcast television in the United States may help in boosting short term viewer numbers, but it will never address the fact that it is the distribution method itself will ultimately cause broadcast television to fall.