Media Mix, May 20, 2012

Remember 3D TV?

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the slow, agonizing death of TV as we’ve always known it. To many people, if not most, this will seem like a non-story because TV has been dying a slow death for years now. It’s a fairly common theme among media critics, though what they usually talk about is the medium of television, which has had to readapt many times over the years to keep up with technological developments and different business models. When I was growing up in the U.S. in the 60s and early 70s, there was only one model: broadcast TV, which was presented either by national networks or local independent stations. In the mid-70s, when I was in college, cable television added “pay” features to the standard fare and became more widespread, but I didn’t own a TV at that time (sort of ironic since broadcasting was my major). Cable TV became the norm in the 1980s, challenging network dominance but not destroying it. That pattern persisted until the late 90s, when Internet usage became ubiquitous. It was at this point that the need for a TV set became, for the first time in its history, less of a compelling social indicator. If people still bought TVs it was simply as a monitor. Movies and even regular TV shows could be downloaded on demand. The advertising and TV program production businesses had to adapt to these realities and they did, often in spectacular fashion. American TV dramas are now much, much better than they were when I was growing up because in many cases they have to measure up to viewers’ direct expectations. People pay to see them, which, in turn, means nominally “free” network fare has to measure up as well.

This development doesn’t apply to Japan, where broadcast networks have and continue to dominate the television medium. Cable TV never caught on except as a delivery device. There are no dedicated cable TV stations except those that present movies all the time or sports all the time. There isn’t even a 24-hour dedicated news service like CNN’s. Everything is still an adjunct to network TV, thanks to the commercial stations’ control of licensing, which effectively discourages any sort of challenge to their hegemony. The result is predictable: an environment in which the networks only compete among themselves for a limited audience and are thus indistinguishable from one another in terms of content. And even that content, as bad as it is, is controlled with an iron hand by makers and providers who refuse to share it with other providers so as to maintain their monopoly. Even NHK doesn’t get it, though, since everyone who owns a TV set is obliged to pay them a fee, they have even more of a captive audience than the networks; but if you want to see an archived program or a repeat, you have to pay an on-demand fee, which to me is a rip-off. I don’t understand why I have to pay extra for content that, essentially, I have already paid for.

The broadcast industry’s resistance to change has made it more than obsolete. It has made it useless, which is why the retail story is so important. Sales of TV sets starting dropping steeply last August, after the changeover to digital was complete, but manufacturers asked retailers to continue treating TV sets as their central piece of merchandise, at least until the end of the year, because they had produced so many. They were forced to implement a rebate system, but even that didn’t work. There were just too many TVs in the land and not enough people to buy them; or, for that matter, interest to spur buying. Earlier this year, Bic Camera made the decision to move its TV section in their flagship Yurakucho store from the first floor to the second floor, replacing it with cell phones. TV sets used to account for 20-30 percent of discount retailers’ sales. No more. Young people don’t care about watching TV, so why should they buy one? According to reports, the networks saw a rise in advertising revenues this last year, which some see as evidence that the medium will survive and flourish, but common sense says this is only a blip, a post-disaster hiccup. Broadcasters are already diversifying into feature films, publishing, and other ventures. TBS makes a substantial portion of its income from real estate. They will continue, but not necessarily as broadcasters. American TV networks have had to adapt first to cable (and they resisted, quite strongly) and now to cyberspace, and they’ve managed to not only survive, but survive as TV networks, though some will say they could only do so by consolidating with other companies into media conglomerates. Be that as it may, Japanese broadcasters don’t seem to possess the same imaginative capabilities. Their only strategy was to think: as long as we’re the only game in town, people will come to us. Not necessarily. There are and always have been plenty of other games.

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