Will on-demand kill the supply of prime-time tv

Updated: Jan 2 2006, 05:30am hrs
ABC's recently canceled Night Stalker never got much traction on the air, where it was buried by CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Apprentice, but there was a place it was a consistent top-10 hit, matching and even surpassing Desperate Housewives and Lost on iTunes' Video Bestsellers list.

We had a terrible time slot, but it was heartening to see how well we charted on iTunes, says Night Stalker executive producer Frank Spotnitz. At this stage in on-demand TV, I don't think the network saw that as part of their business. They kept their eye on it, but unfortunately it didn't happen soon enough to become a powerful argument (to keep the show on the air). It was viewed as an experiment.

Granted, thousands of downloads (at $1.99 a pop) scarcely compare to millions of prime-time viewers. Still, It's not just about the Nielsen (ratings) anymore, says Jerry Maglio, Starz! vice president of marketing. It's about the Nielsens plus this plus that, depending on who's being targeted, that will equal success or failure. The video landscape is changing daily, it seems.

Night Stalker may have been a victim of an industry unsure of how to contend with the exploding new technologies surrounding it, but it will hardly be the last.

How long have we been hearing about all this new technology and the breathless cries of revolution, and it never happened says Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. This year, the tipping point occurred.

It's exciting and frightening both, Spotnitz says. Everybody knows everything's going to change. But no one knows how.

Here are three glimpses of how things may change in the near future, and what it means both for viewers and those who create and distribute TV entertainment.

ABC first made episodes of some of its programs available at iTunes; NBC followed (The Office, a relatively low-rated sitcom, is a hit at iTunes, with episodes taking up 13 of the top 40 positions on the video sales list), and added on-demand offerings of some of its programming through DirecTV. CBS is doing the same via some Comcast digital cable operators.

Are these networks taking baby steps to their own future irrelevance When any programming is available whenever the viewer wants it, what does that portend for those carefully strategized prime-time lineups

There's been a declining audience for network TV for a while, says Spotnitz. Besides cable and the internet, he says, People have their own libraries of things they specifically want to see, which competes for TV viewing time. More options is good news for the consumer but bad news for the networks, who are responsible for the most expensive hours of TV produced. It'll be harder and harder to maintain an audience that justifies that business model.

Starz!'s Maglio agrees. There's been a steady erosion of ratings off broadcast, and now a couple of other factors the on-demand mentality, and in a parallel path, the youth of America who prefer broadband, Internet-based content options. Put all that together, and what's moving south is an adherence to a fixed-schedule viewing pattern. What's emerging is a personal prime time, where you become the programmer, selecting among the options available to you.

Paul Levinson, chairman of the department of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York, says of the networks, They're on the ropes they'll not last much longer. By 2015, network TV may be one-fifth as important as it is now. The prime-time TV programmer will become an artifact of history. Geniuses like William Paley brilliantly understood how to put together a great lineup, but those are already bygone days: No one at the networks today has that sort of stature.

Albert Cheng, vice president of Disney/ABC Digital Media, says that rumours of the death of prime-time TV are greatly exaggerated and that other platforms help the weekly schedule.