In this crazy, multi-platform, authenticated, piracy-challenged, interactively shifting world of video entertainment, only one constant binds the universe together: The Screen. This is more than a philosophical statement. The truth is that while all the talk about cord cutting and over-the-top offers important insight into viewing habits, including the tendency of modern consumers to demand time and place flexibility, those eyeballs are still glued to a flat piece of glass. The size of that glass may change depending on the device. But it’s still just glass filled with colorful pixels. In fact, the irony of what’s going on with broadband video and OTT is that the Mother of All Screens in your living room matters even more today than when it was the only game in town. With the hype over 3DTV starting to recede, TV makers have shifted their attention to “Smart TVs” (essentially, TVs connected to broadband and able to stream content from Internet-based services like Netflix). That’s just a big computer. But we still call it a TV. What to do, what to do…
Just this week, Nielsen released its new 2012 estimate that the number of U.S. Television Homes will decline to 114.7 million from 115.9 million in 2011, bringing the percentage of U.S. homes with a TV set to 96.7%, down from 98.9% in 2011. We haven’t experienced a decline like that since the recession of the early 1990s, after which we saw years of steady TV penetration growth. To some, numbers like these are evidence that OTT is slowly killing the “core” TV business. But the truth is more complicated. “Watching TV” is no longer hardware specific. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Any device with a video-capable screen is pretty much a “TV set” whether or not most of us think of it that way. Whether something comes in via IP or QAM or over-the-air signals matters little to the viewer. It’s the same storytelling experience no matter the transmission method or device in question. To be sure, the numbers and industry psychology won’t reflect this for quite some time—and that’s the main reason we’re all clinging to old definitions of what makes a TV set.
To many consumers (especially the young ones), a screen is a screen is a screen. But to the media industry, which depends on measurement to determine ratings and therefore advertising rates and even license fees, the difference between a TV screen, a computer screen and a mobile device screen takes on much importance. Throw in VOD and other forms of time-shifted viewing across all of those screens, and it gets even more complicated.
On some level, we all kind of get it: A person watching Hulu Plus on his iPad is no less a viewer than the person watching a television hooked up to cable. But measurement on those two platforms involves completely different methodologies, not to mention varied levels of potential interactivity for the advertiser. They are valued differently as a result. It’s complicated. Very complicated, to sort all of this out. But it’s vital that the industry get to a point in which every screen is equal, and we no longer stress about how many “TV sets” fill our households. Only then can cable unleash its full creative energy and forge a new economic model that’s far stronger than what preceded it. We’re not there yet. But we’re getting closer.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)