Now that viewing audience is becoming fragmented once again, social scientists say. On the Web, where users pick and choose what they want to watch, it’s harder to ensure that public broadcasting, local news and political debates will reach the bulk of American households. With options such as iTunes, Hulu, YouTube and Net-flix, communities are no longer bonded by watching the same evening news and prime-time shows.
And as fewer people rely only on broadcast television, stations around the nation are struggling to survive even as some rural residents, elderly and the poor continue to rely on free TV.
“Broadcast has an incredibly important function for community and political reasons, and that programming will need to be delivered to 100 percent of the people,” said Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Americans watch about 147 hours of cable, satellite and broadcast television a month, a figure that hasn’t changed much in recent years, according to Nielsen, a media metrics firm. Now they are supplementing that with about 4.5 hours of online video each month, double the amount of three years ago. Younger viewers are watching even more hours online.
Those who only watch free broadcast television comprise a niche audience. In the third quarter of 2011, they totalled 5.8 million homes, down from 6.25 million homes in the third quarter of 2010. Over the past four weeks, all four major networks said prime-time viewing declined, according to Nielsen.
That has made it harder for broadcasters to court advertisers as viewers shift to the Internet, analysts say. Viewership for local television news has steadily declined since 2007, Nielsen said. Six in 10 consumers, meanwhile, now get their news online.
Network companies such as NBC Universal, News Corp. and Walt Disney Co. are responding by trying to divert advertising dollars from local television stations to Hulu, the online video site in which they have stakes. Hulu’s viewers watched about 1.7 billion ads last month.
And local broadcasters are faced with new rivals such as Aereo, an online start-up that the networks are suing for alleged copyright infringement. The company, funded by IAC/Interactive chief executive Barry Diller, provides access to online shows from New York City broadcast stations for $12 a month. Diller will testify in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday on the future of television and online video.
The business battles being fought for video dominance in the digital age have created an abundance of new options. But not always for the better, some consumers say.