The Long Hello: Games 'Arrive' As A Threat To Network TV

Anyone old enough to remember RF switchers knows that video games and network television have long competed for the same eyeballs on the same TV set.

Only recently does it feel like games are getting credit - or blame, rather - for contributing to the decline of prime time programming. This discussion has reconstituted itself over the past two weeks with the NBC's intramural turf war over late night programming, which involves the Tonight Show - the seventh-longest running television series in history, begun in 1954. Interestingly, and I can't be alone, I have not seen a single second of it play out on any of the network broadcasts themselves, which might be indicative of problems even deeper than those posed by video games.

TiVo, cable television and the networks' own throat-slitting content decisions are all manifestations of the past 10 years or so; but video games have been something of a fifth network for NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox to contend with all along. It's an entertainment decision well older than the internet, as anyone who whined about wanting to play on the rumpus room TV, or left family night to play a game in their room, can well remember. But only now, as game playing children of the 1980s and 1990s are adults making decisions in the 2000s is it really coming home to roost.

Nielsen [PDF] , the same folks who've given us television ratings for decades, found console gamers are most active between 3pm and 10pm, with a dip around 7pm. If the PlayStation 3 is any indication, they're not watching any primetime network broadcasts at all. None of the top 30 network programs seen by PS3 users were seen in prime time. The network programming viewed by this heavy-user demographic was either the network news, David Letterman, or NBC's Late Night (hosted by Conan O'Brien at the time of the study).

Cable programs did marginally better with this group - 17 per cent of the shows watched were seen in prime time. And that's for a segment Nielsen described as a "medium" television user. Xbox 360 players were characterised as "light" TV users.

This is for an 18-24 demographic, but if you were to compare them with older ages that share the same traits - single, childless, some tertiary education - I think you'd find similar behaviours. It rather reflects my experience; when my television is on, it's almost always in the background. Only rarely is it tuned to non-sports or news programming and even then, it's typically something like Mythbusters - a fascinating show, but not a narrative. And I'm 36 years old, only a year older than the average video gamer age, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

There's something else at work here. Not only is the national conversation changing, the forums in which we have it also are changing. I'm thinking of employment in a traditional office and, by extension, the office cooler around which one talks about television. Like The Office. Telecommuting was on the rise well before the onset of the current recession, and as contract work increases at the expense of full-time-with-benefits employment in its aftermath, we'll only see more of it. How is this important? People tend to keep up with their emotional reference groups. I remember when my parents forbade me from watching The Dukes of Hazzard and how out of place I felt when my second-grade friends would yammer on about how awesome it was. Today, I feel a stronger displacement when I have not played the current hottest game far more than I do having not seen a single episode of Heroes, one of the strongest shows among the gamer demographic.

And finally, don't overlook the content offerings. Notably, of the three biggest drama genres on network television - legal, medical and police - two have practically no console game analogue and the modern police drama like CSI (in addition to doing terribly as a game adaptation) is more procedural than action-oriented. It's a chicken-and-egg debate, of course, but remember when action shows like Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Airwolf, the A-Team and MacGyver, to say nothing of their police-action counterparts in earlier times, dominated prime-time programming? I argue these viewers' needs, cultivated as adolescents, are now served by video games, and television - especially on networks - is largely retrenching on islands that are either uninteresting to gamers, or haven't yet been reached by games.

Treating games as a serious competitor doesn't necessarily expose some nugget of wisdom that will save network television. But they do combine the serious content offering of cable alternatives or DVDs with the self service of TiVo or Internet viewing. That makes them more than a diversion; they're serious competitors, and unlike others, one gestating for more than 20 years now.


    I personally think its the other way round, decline of quality programming on TV has caused more of the casual audience to look to video games for entertainment. When it comes to Australian TV I personally cannot just sit and watch for more then one or two programs because usually there's only one or two things really worth watching in a given day.

    I'm a 29yo male, during my teenage years I watched TV obsessively while also being massively into computers. As I've grown older, I've become more jaded with our TV networks being unable to give us shows at the same time as the US and without interruption and time-slot jiggling for things that don't interest me (like the all-important "sports" coverage). Not to mention shows never starting on time, so if you try to watch something on one channel and record on another, you have to bracket the tape with 15-30 minutes on each side just to be safe (back in the days of VHS anyway). And if you wanted to tape two shows on different channels one after the other, you were in for heartbreak. Sometimes it almost seemed as if the TV stations did it that way on purpose when the biggest movies and shows were happening.

    As a result I haven't watched TV in nearly half a decade. All my TV program viewing comes from DVDs and the internet. I voted with my feet. I wish others would do the same.

    Oh and I don't listen to radio, either. I hate how they stop the music every song or two to announce who the station is and that there are no "advertisements" for the next hour, followed by the chat hosts talking for 5 minutes about something that isn't funny in an overly Australian low-brow voice, followed by more music which they can't give us the titles to in any consistent manner. Radio broke my heart over a decade ago. So I use iTunes and burn MP3 CDs for my car.

    I think I'm the "average" Australian in that respect. Corporations like TV and Radio have NO IDEA how to treat me properly, who I am, or what I like - because they have yet to work out how to cater to me. It's simple really: honesty, consistency, and timeliness.

    Announce a TV series I'm interested in, that you will show every show in the right order at the same day and time without fail for the entire run, and then stick to your promise no matter what, and I'll watch your advertisements.

      "Announce a TV series I’m interested in, that you will show every show in the right order at the same day and time without fail for the entire run, and then stick to your promise no matter what, and I’ll watch your advertisements."

      That's not good enough for me anymore. If I have to watch something on TV, then I'm not on my PC. Which means I'm not reading news, or communicating with people I care about. TV demands a dreadful monopoly on my attention, then abuses it by padding a 24 minute show into 34, full of ads.

      Combine this with the awful state of affairs in Australia - delayed airings, moronic advertisements, inability to keep to schedule, programs being cut down for more ads, abominably awful content, etc., and I think it's pretty easy to justify living away from that big screen in the games room.

    I have tagged many so called declines with the same issues for years.
    Music sales going down - due mainly to crap that is released as "popular" and as Triple J reported once, in a year when the music industry reported a 8% sales decrease they also released 15% less CD's...of course if you release less you will sell less. As for reported TV ratings declining and Box Office decline it is always blamed on piracy but never do they report that now more than ever people have substantial DVD collections. It is never blamed on the fact that there are only so many hours for people to use on entertainment - the increase of the internet as a source of entertainment, video games and social networking and mobile applications means people have less time to spend watching TV.
    With sales of big screen TV's increasing - why would you go to the movies when you have a cinema experience at home?
    As for the lax scheduling of TV in Australia, of course fans of a show like (for example) Dexter will download and view in line with the US as if they are participating in online forums and the like they need to be up to date. It's not like the internet has a spoiler free zone just for Aussies.
    Regardless it's easier to just blame piracy when the facts are that it is probably not the main issue for the decline of avenues of entertainment from the 90's and earlier...

    Very similar feelings to other posters but I'm also just sick of the heavy dose of commercialization in TV and network programming in general.

    Video Games, DVDs, Mp3s and the internet are media that I feel like I can control, I don't have to sit through adds and I get to pick and choose which content I would like my brain to be subjected to.

    Guys are after all living and breathing beings, not just percentages of a consumer base study and that's how Television has me feeling these days.
    Of course another part of the major discrepancy in my TV watching habits (or lack thereof) is the absolute displacement of anything that could be considered to be vaguely interesting for a 27 year male that doesn't care about watching pointless drama, desperate house wives, A currant fair rubbish or the latest fashion trends.

    What exactly is out there that is aimed at enticing me so a network can chalk up as another viewer on the scoreboard?

    When TV was invented, some pundits forecast that it would never take off because the "average American family" simply did not have time to sit in front of the box for long periods of time, week in week out. Many decades later, it's starting to come true.

    I hardly watch TV other than sport and some political current affairs (once I would have also said news, but now most news is via various internet sources, as if there's something I must actually see, I can now usually even see it on the internet too... if I was in the US, I daresay even the current affairs stuff would be more easily watchable on the Internet and I could abandon TV even more).

    I simply don't have time anymore to commit to TV shows. When I was at uni I wasn't a big TV viewer but I could still sit down to shows like Deadwood, Alias or 24 every week. These days it's impossible, and between DVDs and the internet, it's so much more convenient to get shows you want that way and watch them when you have time, not when the TV network has time (and without ads, and with pause and rewind!) I've seen every episode of Battlestar Galactica, none of them on TV.

    TV's problem is it hasn't evolved in decades, and people's lifestyles have.

    TV's other problem is that it increasingly funds terrible reality shows and vapid relationship angstfests disguised as "dramas", and not enough actually interesting stuff, so even if you did have time to watch, there's less and less reason to bother if you're above the bottom 20% of the gene pool.

    Did anyone else notice the average age of 360 users was 12-17 and their earnings was 75K+? I know kids start young these days but huh?

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