SUBSCRIBERS to print newspapers have gone missing, as everyone knows. Book publishers are also wondering where readers have disappeared to.
And yet television stands out as the one old-media business with surprising resilience. Though we are spending a record amount of time online, including a record amount of time watching video, we are also watching record amounts of very old-fashioned television, according to Nielsen Media Research. Our attachment to the medium, of course, is obscured by the splintering of our attention across so many cable offerings, in addition to the major networks.
Why is the newspaper business losing readers at an accelerated rate while television viewership is stronger than ever? Here’s a speculative idea: A tipping point has been passed in the competition between print and screen that has been under way since the beginnings of broadcast TV and now continues with video and other media.
Consumers are increasingly avoiding newspapers — and books, too — because the text mode is now used so infrequently that it can feel like a burden. People are showing a clear preference for a fully formed video experience that comes ready to play on a screen, requiring nothing but our passive attention.
The video mode has been reinforced by the rise of YouTube. In December, almost 100 million viewers in the United States watched 5.9 billion YouTube videos, according tocomScore. Tellingly, YouTube has not cannibalized TV viewership — it has instead carved out another chunk of our leisure time for video on a screen.
As enamored as advertisers are with the interactive potential of digital advertising, they know that online is a complement to offline, not its replacement. “With television, it’s easier to get a large audience in one fell swoop,” said Shane Ankeney, an executive with the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day.
Consider that the average American household consists of 2.7 persons and contains 2.9 television sets, in front of which we sit for record-setting spells, according to Nielsen figures. In the quarter ended Sept. 30, the typical American watched 142 hours of television monthly, up about five hours from the same quarter the previous year. Internet use averaged more than 27 hours monthly, an increase of an hour and a half, according to Nielsen.
We are so smitten with screens that we often can’t bear to choose one over another: 31 percent of Internet use occurs while we’re in front of a TV set. We are also taking an interest in watching video on our phones: 100 million handsets are video-capable.
You now hear talk in the advertising trade of our “three screens”: television, the Internet and mobile devices. When I asked representatives of major ad agencies about how they chose the optimal mix of media for clients, I was led back, again and again, to television. That’s not just because it remains the one place where an advertiser can gather a truly mass audience for a single commercial message, but also because it provides what advertisers call an “immersive experience.”
We used to speak of reading a book as an immersive experience, too, but “immersive” now seems shorthand for “video on a screen.”
We can also see how the expansion of screen culture entails more than just moving text from a printed page to a screen. It also means less text, more video, less reading and more watching, online or offline.
Television is not wholly recession-proof. As results for the fourth quarter come in, we’ll see ugly numbers. The Walt Disney Company reported its earnings last week, and the news was nothing but bad for ABC, whose operating income dropped significantly because of lower ad revenue. But this seems to be more a result of the disappearance of car dealership advertising in local TV markets than permanent abandonment of the medium by national brand advertisers. .
Advertisers follow viewers wherever they happen to be. Online, of course, the healthiest category of advertising is search-related. Google’s revenue, most of which comes from search, was $21.8 billion in 2008, up 31 percent from 2007.
But once that special case is put aside, online advertisers have a stark choice: The first option is placing display ads at very inexpensive rates, thanks to an overabundance of supply, but these disappear in the vast ocean of the Web: some 4.5 trillion display ads were shown to United States Internet users in 2008, according to comScore.
Or advertisers can use ads that resemble television commercials and match those to the online content that most resembles television — because it actually is television programming. Hulu, which was created by NBC and Fox, offers many TV shows online and had a 57 percent increase in viewership in the last six months of 2008.
Greg Kahn, a senior vice president for the advertising agency Optimedia International, said news Web sites must sell their advertising space at low rates because “you can get news anytime, anywhere.” Hulu, on the other hand, commands rates that are higher per thousand viewers than those paid for the same programming offline, he said.
“Online, the amount of professionally produced video is limited,” Mr. Kahn said.
MARKETERS often cite a quote generally attributed to John Wanamaker, the pioneer department store merchant: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” In the absence of hard data on how many people actually saw an ad in predigital times, advertisers were willing to give print media the benefit of the doubt. That’s no longer the case.
Even if print media could give advertisers all the metrics they desired, they would still struggle to hold on to readers who are required to, well, read. Or perhaps that requirement can be eased. Last week, HarperCollins released its first “video book,” a presentation by the author Jeff Jarvis about his just-published book, “What Would Google Do?” The downloadable, unabridged audio version of the book runs nine hours and costs $27.99, a bargain compared with the video, which is only 23 minutes and costs $9.99.
An audible book, however, requires the listener to mentally visualize the narrative. A video, even if no more visual than an author facing the camera, offers the appealing prospect of relief from such heavy lifting.
In screen culture, video rules.