By: Tori Eisenstadt

The media world has evolved since the birth of broadcast television in the 1950s.  First there were the three broadcast networks—CBS, ABC, and NBC.  With only three options and no recording devices for later viewing, people watched the same programs at the same time.  When cable arrived in the 1980s, content expanded, and viewers had more options.  Today, with the Internet, and streaming devices, people can watch what they want, when they want.  The programming options are endless, with numerous platforms of distribution.  Therefore the viewing habits have changed for television’s audience, and programmers have had to adapt to these habits in order to continue to capture their target demographics.  The Internet specifically has been one of the forces to change viewing habits, as content viewing services such as Netflix and Hulu began streaming shows online.


“As television in the United States evolved, its principal purpose has become the distribution of commercials.  That is, television networks in the U.S. exist primarily to deliver audiences composed of specific demographics to advertisers” (Blumenthal and Goodenough 2006).

Television followed radio broadcasting’s business model.  From the start of radio, advertisers funded the stations to produce programming in exchange for associations with those programs.  Early on some television programs were fully sponsored by a single company and others were often interrupted for commercials.  With both radio and television, certain times of the day, “dayparts” were designed to draw different audiences.  For instance afternoon soap operas are targeted to woman, while prime time television is targeted to more general audiences.

When cable was introduced in the 1980s, it used the audience segmentation strategy to create individual brands.  Content created for each cable network goes along with the target audience the network is trying to reach.  (Blumenthal & Goodenough 2006).

Cable vs Broadcast Networks: program trends

In recent years, the quality of cable programming has significantly improved and has proven successful in the ratings. Just this week, AMC’s “Walking Dead” was the cable show viewed, with 12.419 million viewers (triple the size of the audience for CBS’ “The Good Wife” on that same night); The History Channel’s “The Bible” came in second with 11.745 million.  (1)   A major difference between cable & network programming is cable television shows include more violence and sexual content.For the first time at the 2012 Emmys, cable series beat the networks.  Not a single network show was nominated for best drama. (2)

Television Ad Sales Decline:

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It’s a known fact that without advertising, a television or cable station can’t survive.  Though maybe not always supportive of each other’s roles, programming needs the ad revenue, and advertisers need programming to reach the audience they need.

Many of the networks ratings have dropped significantly this season.  NBC once in the lead finds itself in last place of the top 4 networks. As The New York Times reported on February 24th, “The ratings of last September through December, when NBC shocked the television industry by winning 13 of 15 weeks, have dissipated to numbers so small they have not been seen before by any broadcast network — certainly not during a rating period known as a sweeps month, when networks present their strongest programming.” (3)

With ratings at an all time low this year for the broadcast networks, advertising agencies are likely to invest more in cable and online ad placement.  Even though the cable ratings are lower, the ad spots are cheaper, and since broadcast ratings have decreased, more advertisers are likely to spend the money on cable slots.  (4)

Programming Moves Online





Online streaming services have changed the way people watch television, and has now become a viable alternative to network and cable programming.  For last few years, the Internet has spurred the audience trend of “binge viewing”, with the availability of full series streaming online.  This gives viewers the opportunity to both catch up on a show, or start a new series, and often people will watch a full series at once (hence the term “binge viewing”). In January, Netflix released their  first original series, the $100 million dollar drama, “House of Cards” all at once.  In May, the online subscription service will launch a new season of the successful comedy “Arrested Development”, which originally aired on FOX.  Netflix has four more series on the way this year. and Hulu are also joining in on the trend of internet original programming.  Amazon has produced several pilot episodes for at least six comedies, and five children’s shows, and they plan to announce more soon.  Unlike earlier internet programming, these shows look and feel like traditional television.  That’s because the companies involved in the production are spending millions:  Amazon is said to have invested $1 million for each of their comedy pilots, which is less than the $2 million invested in a broadcast comedy pilot, but more than what is usually invested in a cable pilot.  Other companies such as  Microsoft, Twitter, AOL, Sony, and satellite provider DirecTV are also said to follow the online original programming trend. (5)

Daytime Trends

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Once a network staple, the soap opera has virtually become non-existent in the world of daytime television, due to it’s severe drop in viewership.   Soaps’ primary audience has traditionally been women ages 25-34, mostly homemakers.  (2) However, with more women in the workforce today, less women are home during the day, and therefore less women are watching soap operas.

In the last few years, the networks have cancelled soap operas.  In 2009, CBS cancelled “Guiding Light”, and a year later cancelled “As the World Turns”.  In 2011, ABC cancelled “All My Children” and “One Life to Live”, leaving just “General Hospital as the only soap on the network. NBC as well only has one soap remaining, “Days of our Lives, making CBS the only network to have more than one soap on its schedule:  “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful”.  (6)

ABC replaced its two cancelled soaps with the cooking talk show last year with “The Chew”, and in September 2012 added Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie” to its schedule.  These shows are cheaper to produce than soap operas, so since soap opera viewership dropped, it made more sense to cancel most and schedule cheaper programming. (7)

Although the networks have cancelled most of the soap operas, fans of the genre may soon be able to watch their favorite soaps online.  Both “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” are said to air new episodes either via Hulu, Youtube, or Prospect Park’s website The “OnLine Network” on April 29th.  (8)

Late-Night Trends

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Currently  late-night programming is experiencing an audience shift.  Originally created to target older audiences, it is now skewing younger.  The main story in this area of television has been who will replace Jay Leno once his contract is up in 2014.  As of April 3rd, it became official that Jimmy Fallon would move to Leno’s 11:35 pm slot.  There has been no announcement of who will replace Fallon in his 12:35 slot.  More evidence of late-night skewing younger is shown by Jimmy Kimmel beating David Letterman in the 18-34 demo.   For multiple weeks Jimmy Kimmel beat both Letterman and Leno for multiple weeks this season, and overall ABC has been ranked #1 in late-night for younger audiences.  (9)

It is clear that television programming has changed the viewers’ habits and tastes throughout the years.  Viewership is no longer limited to watching on a television set anymore.  With the advent of cable TV and the internet, television has come a long way from the original programming made for the masses.  Today there is a niche for everyone, and many ways to watch.