The Slow Death of the TV Programming Guide
Over the summer I had to write a piece imitating the style of the Object Lessons column from The Atlantic. I wrote about the vanishing use of the programming guide. Here’s a modified version for your consideration.
Variety reported in August that pay-TV distributors lost 566,000 subscribers during the second quarter of 2015, which is traditionally a strong quarter. The shrinkage has accelerated from 0.1% annually to 0.7%.
In 1992, Bruce Springsteen sang “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” noting that the first thing he did when he bought a home was order cable. Of course, that begs the question, how do you know what’s on which channel?
It’s hard to know anymore how to count the channels and variations of channels to come up with an accurate number. Does HBO West count as a separate channel just because it airs the same programming three hours after the East Coast feed?
By one count at Quora.com, there may be as many as 15,000 channels around the world counting local, national, and international sources. Given how many international channels are carried by various cable companies, quite a few of those wind up available to Americans, swelling the options.
It used to be so simple. Back in 1948, there were so few channels in any one city that you could count them on one hand (the exception was New York City which could boast six local channels, seven as of 1969 when PBS began broadcasting). Lee Wagner, the circulation director of McFadden Publishing, saw a new need and filled it with The TeleVision Guide. It succeeded well enough that he soon after added regional editions in New England and the Baltimore-Washington area before selling out to Walter Annenberg and his Triangle Publications in 1953.
Annenberg wisely gobbled up similar publications that sprouted in imitation of Wagner’s brainstorm, including TV Forecast, TV Digest, Television Guide and TV Guide. The merged titles were renamed TV Guide which debuted on newsstands across America on April 3, 1953. For the next 52 years, the digest-sized magazine became the premier source for knowing what was going to air and on what channel.
It all seemed so simple. You got a week’s worth of information along with news, reviews, and photographs so it found a permanent place next to the remote control in homes from coast to coast. Eight years after HBO first debuted as a pay cable option, in 1972 TV Guide began running cable listings alongside broadcast options. The explosion of basic and premium channels made it increasingly difficult for the company to keep up. Additionally, cable subscribers were getting their own version of a programming guide, more individually tailored to their localized offerings. Still, a consumer could thumb through a weekly or monthly magazine and check off the shows, specials, events, and movies they wanted to watch in under an hour.
But mass media has never been static. Much as recordings gave way to movies, radio, and television, there have been seismic disturbances. As the London Observer wrote, “Here are a few disruptions: Lucy and Desi disrupted CBS and NBC by giving birth to syndication. John Malone and cable disrupted everyone. When CNN aired on-the-ground footage of Iraq, Ted Turner disrupted the news business. ESPN disrupted Monday Night Football and broadcast sports. Fox disrupted the oligopoly of the Big 3. HBO eroded the TV commercial, then DVR, VOD and Netflix punched it in the throat. YouTube has disrupted cable by putting up shows that you otherwise have to pay for, for free.”
As the cable set-top box grew increasingly sophisticated, the listings were now available on the screen. United Video Satellite Group may have launched the first electronic program guide in 1981, but it too had competitors. In time, the service was known as Prevue and then finally was owned by TV Guide. When satellite subscriptions became an option, SuperGuide was introduced by STV/Onsat in 1986 to supply the new subscriber base. In 1990, the second generation version trumped the print guides by offering viewers two weeks of programming options.
Meantime, the growth of channels continued to accelerate and it wasn’t long before many of them began offering original programming to compete with the major broadcast channels but also with the growing number of premium cable offerings. Atop this, viewers saw the four networks grow to include United Paramount Network and Warner Bros Network before they collapsed into what is known today as the CW.
Then came the Internet and as high speed connectivity made video possible, there came with an exponential explosion of options for the viewer, as seen in the rise of YouTube. This further complicated a viewer’s ability to know every choice available while adding complications to the guide providers.
By 1999, TV Guide and Tribune Media’s Zap2It entered the internet listings field, followed almost immediately by The Gist. I worked at that last one for ten months, packaging content including attempting to get users to rate and aggregate video offerings which proved far more complicated than realized at the time. Still, working in the trenches, as it were, it was clear to me that the average viewer would have complications knowing everything out there or who to trust to provide accurate and engaging listings. They needed more than a listings guide.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Modern online recommendations began in 1992, when two American computer scientists, John Reidl and Paul Resnick, developed a tool that collected user ratings to suggest articles on Usenet, an Internet discussion system.
“During the first dot-com wave in the late 1990s, tech startups seized on collaborative filtering as a way to stand out from competitors. Amazon began offering an algorithm-based recommendation service in 1998, just a few years after the company launched (an Amazon spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment).”
Then came the collaborative filtering system were users began rating and commenting on programming offerings that allowed the data to be further refined so if you rated something, say, a seven or above (out of 10), you might like similarly rated programming of a similar content nature.
As the new millennium dawned, newspapers threw in the towel and one by one began dropping their weekly television listing supplements. Even today a few hang on and most daily papers only list the evening programming so those wondering what’s one in the morning or afternoon are required to use electronic resources or just aimlessly flip channels.
Pity the older generations who seemed overwhelmed by the choices and then were befuddled that the cable box knew what they liked to watch, making recommendations on their online guides.
The arrival of subscription DVD service Netflix was the next great game changer as they went from renting discs to streaming filmed content to producing their own fare. By making every episode of a season of an original production available on a single day encouraged binge watching, which has become an accepted way of consuming media. It also means the traditional weekly transmission of a series’ episodes was compromised.
But with deals with the studios changing the content available on Netflix (and Hulu, Amazon Prime and other sources), even now people are confused as they what’s out there. Enter the What is on Netflix app for computers and smartphones which takes ratings from film review aggregators Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic along with user generated reviews at IMDB and matches them against the current inventory on Netflix to meet your personal preferences.
TiVo and the arrival of the digital recorder also upended the need for a programming schedule since you could set the device to record selected episodes or full series allowing the viewer to watch on their schedule. At first networks were dismayed, especially as they lacked a way to measure the delayed viewing and add it to their ratings, which were used to justify advertising rates. Now ratings can be broken down to same day, +3 and +7 models which provides more accurate counts of people actually watching shows. Advertising has been adjusted so viewers are encouraged that “tonight’s one episode you want to see live”.
Both of the above have been in the vanguard of the next wave of change that has seen the arrival of numerous ways to consume favorite movies and television series without the need for expensive cable packages. With the average viewer watching only 17 of the hundreds of channels offered, many a consumer is seeking ways to save money and still see what they want, when they it.
This “cord-cutting” threatens the cable companies’ domination of the field and may be the next great transformation in entertainment.
“I don’t think the sky is falling quite yet, and I think that there is not enough programming weight yet in the Internet and in the over-the-top services that are out there to really entice a mainstream video customer,” Charles Dolan said on Cablevision’s earnings call over the summer. Last week, the company announced a 68% decrease in third quarter earnings so he may have been mistaken.
And it seems to no longer matter to the programming guide. The TV knows what you want.
“This is where technology has led us. The algorithms that spit out online recommendations for television series, movies and more are taking artificial intelligence to a new level. Top providers such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon — which tens of millions of Americans get either through set-top boxes such as Roku or via personal computers — employ large engineering teams dedicated to cracking the code of what users want and guiding them to it,” intoned the Times.
“Nothing less than the future of the entertainment business is at stake, as the industry continues its landmark shift from broadcasting to time-shifting and niche programming.”
Prime time television is not going anywhere – at least not yet – and they still service the largest segment of our population. Similarly, there will remain a need for programming guides of one kind or another but the notion that a single source can tell you what is on television or streaming on the Internet is no longer viable nor does it seem particularly needed.
Not long from now, it will become an antiquated way of finding information, much like the traditional card catalogues at the library. As the mass society further splinters into increasingly narrower segments, the need for something so broad vanishes.