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50 Years After the Beatles Invaded, TV Is a Different Medium

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it’s instructive to consider the ways television viewing has changed in the interim.

You would have been watching the Fab Four on an ovenlike set anchored in a bulky console, on one of maybe five channels you got (including UHF). Almost certainly in black and white. (At the start of 1964, only 3 percent of American TVs were color.) If you ventured into the kitchen for refreshment, you just missed your only chance to see the lads sing She Loves You.

Slingshot that same viewer without transition into 2014, waiting for a train to arrive, and she’d swear she was witnessing sorcery. That boy on the platform — are those tattoos? — is watching the episode of Teen Wolf that was just on TV last night on a small rectangle he calls his mobile phone. That businessman is watching a movie that’s still playing in theaters on a slightly larger screen he calls his tablet. And he’s stopping and rewinding the action. Yet no flying cars as in The Jetsons. It takes exactly as long as it ever did to get to work.

Yes, we live in a brave new world of television. And the innovations and choices are coming at an ever-accelerating pace.

More content, more outlets, more delivery systems than ever before. It’s a buyers’ market out there for TV viewers.

“The line used to be: ‘500 channels and nothing on,’ ” says Lucy Hood, president and chief operating officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. “Now it’s ‘1,000 channels and there’s too much to watch.’ The biggest complaint we hear is, ‘I haven’t had a chance to catch up on that series. I hear it’s great.’ That’s a nice problem to have.”

Certainly, production has proliferated as original programming, once the exclusive province of broadcast television, spread to pay cable, then to basic cable, and now to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

“I would say the competition for original programming has increased more than tenfold,” says Chris McCumber, the president of cable channel USA. “A few years ago there weren’t many basic cable channels doing original shows. We had Monk and FX had The Shield. Now everybody has their own slate of series.

“It’s great for the viewers,” McCumber says. “It used to be we told the viewers when something would be on. Now they lead us. They go to the platforms they want to go to. And the word of mouth that is happening across social networks is a major driver of how shows grow.”

The more intense rivalry for eyeballs has led to a creative boom in the business, exemplified by series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Good Wife.

“Everyone’s been telling me that I’d like the way the medium is going, how it’s character-based and darker in tone,” said M. Night Shyamalan, who is bringing a limited-run thriller, Wayward Pines, to Fox this summer.

DVRs and On Demand have changed the way Americans consume TV, ushering in the conventions of delayed (or time-shifted) viewing and binge-watching.

“When we introduced On Demand, people were afraid to push the button; they thought they’d be charged for it,” says Matt Strauss, the senior vice president and general manager of video services at Comcast. “Now it’s fully integrated. Seventy percent of our subscribers use On Demand.

“We have a generation growing up that can’t distinguish between what’s live and what’s time-shifted,” Strauss says. “We have created a generation of instant gratification. They want what they want when they want it. There’s no going back.”

Chugging shows has also become prevalent. “A recent study at the University of Southern California showed that 60 percent of Americans were binge-watching,” says the television academy’s Hood.

But surprisingly, that doesn’t mean the same thing to you as it does your grown children.

“The younger viewers might watch a whole series, 22 episodes, in a weekend,” Hood says. “The more middle-aged viewer considers binge viewing to be two episodes, maybe three. So it’s an elastic concept.”

Rapidly evolving viewing patterns are creating seismic changes in the industry’s business model, forcing it to reassess how it programs, how it markets, and how it gauges success.

Evidence of that will be rampant in 2014.

“Viewers no longer want repeats, so a definite challenge is having to schedule as much original programming as possible, 52 weeks a year,” says Andy Kubitz, ABC’s executive vice president of program planning and scheduling, via e-mail. “That also means you need more promotion, and it’s definitely challenging to break through in that area.”

Fox chairman Kevin Reilly announced at last week’s Television Critics Association biannual meeting that Fox will be abandoning the traditional pilot-season model wherein each network orders dozens of pilots and sees what sticks.

“The broadcast development system was built in a different era with three networks and is highly inefficient,” Reilly said. “It is nothing short of a miracle talent can still produce anything of quality in that environment.”

Fox, he said, will focus on excellence rather than volume, and introduce its projects throughout the calendar year, not just in September.

The move toward event programming with scale and sophistication is an undeniable trend.

“There’s so much competition now. You have to create a big event to grab the attention of the audience,” says USA’s McCumber. “You’re going to see more and more miniseries and limited-run series.”

It’s simple marketplace economics: The supply is mushrooming because we’ve become such a demanding bunch.

“Immediacy and personalization,” says Mark Gross, senior vice president and executive producer at ESPN. “People are in a hurry and they don’t want to wade through a bunch of stuff. ‘I want it at my fingertips.’ ”

Of course, all this comes at a price. And that’s the other major difference from our visitor from 1964: She was watching the Beatles for free. You, my media-saturated friend, are paying through the nose.

Yes, next month you will be able to experience an unprecedented bonanza of athletic action from the Sochi Winter Olympics on your computer or wireless device. But first the machine must verify that you have an active cable or satellite account.

The same goes for any time you use the digital version of HBO or Disney or ESPN or On Demand. You must be authenticated first.

And all those online streaming services are or will eventually be based on subscriber models.

No matter what platform you watch it on, “great television costs a lot,” as Hood points out, “and consumers will only pay so much for all their entertainment.”

So as TV reaches for the stars in 2014, will viewers be willing to pay for its rising ambitions? No one knows.

“Arguably this is the most unstable television situation since the ’40s,” says Matt McAllister, a professor of communications at Penn State. “Uncertainty reigns.”

That would make a good title for a limited-run sci-fi series.