Rise of the Prime Time Internet vs the Death of Television
I often write about the Internet and its place in the broader network media ecology in relation to three things:
- That core elements of the network media ecology are becoming more concentrated: e.g. ISPs, search engines, social networking sites, browsers, operating systems, traditional media;
- Efforts to turn ISPs and other digital intermediaries into copyright police, as some have pushed to have done through the Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11) now in third reading before Parliament;
- Efforts to make those same digital intermediaries into agents of state, national security and law enforcement agencies, such as the Child Online Predators Act (Bill C-30) that was recently yanked by the Harper Government after an outpouring of public protest and one of Rick Mercer’s rants.
An underlying idea behind these points is that online gate-keepers are being created and the Internet generally being recast in the image of older models of the ‘industrial media’ set down in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, however, I want to write about something else: the rise of the “Prime Time Internet” that looks and feels a lot like the ‘old model’ of television.
Preposterous you say? You’re not alone.
Commentators have been declaring television to be in terminal decline for the last decade-and-a-half. Indeed, so popular is this belief that a Google search of “death of television” turns up 957 million hits. The death of television, however, is much exaggerated and probably just wrong.
Television viewing is not declining. Instead, in all but two of the countries surveyed in the International Communications Monitoring Report by the UK communications and media regulator, Ofcom, it has been increasing, including: Canada, the U.S., the UK, France, Sweden, Australia, Italy, Spain, Italy, Germany and a few others (p. 146).
Furthermore, for the most part, the economics of television are strong, as I’ve shown elsewhere. Revenues have not shrunk for television channels or distribution platforms (e.g. cable, satellite, IPTV). In fact, they have expanded significantly, in Canada, the US and worldwide. In China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, India, and a few other countries with fast growing economies the development of television has entered a golden age.
All those who talk of a new generation of digital natives dumping television in favour of their smart phones, Facebook, laptops, Internet, and so forth might be startled to discover that the “consumption of television by teens has stubbornly continued to grow”. In “Why the Internet Won’t Kill TV”, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. senior analyst Todd Juenger writes, “so far teens are following historical patterns, and in fact, their usage of traditional TV is increasing”.
As Juenger notes, of course, young people use mobile devices and computers to do so, but these devices “are in addition to television.” More generally, while online video is being downloaded to an ever more diverse range of mobile devices, increasingly the conventional television screen is the final destination.
The Internet is also increasingly being used more like television in other ways. For one, people download far more information than they upload. In sum, despite all the user-generated content unleashed over the past decade, and the real potential for widely dispersed social interaction and communication, we still communicate mostly with those we know, while remaining primarily net consumers of information.
According to Internet-equipment makers such as Sandvine and Cisco, “Real-time entertainment” services now account for more than half of all Internet traffic at peak time in North America and the Asia-Pacific region (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, NCAA, YouTube, Google Video, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, Pandora, Rdio). The numbers are less for mobile Internet access but still substantial and growing fast: one-third of mobile traffic in North America and roughly forty percent in Asia-Pacific consists of entertainment-type audio-visual services.
Online video is not just the biggest source of traffic during peak hours but those hours coincide with the same “prime time hours” between 8–11 pm that have defined the television audience for decades. In short, the ‘prime-time Internet’ has a lot in common with the ‘old tv’ model, with television programs, online video and the classic prime time hours playing starring roles in the phenomenon. The two figures below show the trend for North America and the Asia-Pacific region.
Figure 1: The Prime-Time Internet in North America
Source: Sandvine, 2011, p. 5.
Figure 2: The Prime Time Internet in the Asia-Pacific Region
Source: Sandvine, 2011, p. 15.
More than just chronicling the greater role of online entertainment, however, the rise of the ‘prime-time Internet’ poses significant challenges to claims that network public sphere that we now associate with the Internet marks a vast improvement over the standards of communication, social connectedness and democratic participation set by the industrial media of the past.
Yochai Benkler (2006) makes exactly such claims in The Wealth of Networks:
“A substantial body of empirical literature suggests. . . that we are in fact using the Internet . . . at the expense of television, and that this exchange is a good one from the perspective of social ties . . . . [I]n addition to strengthening our strong bonds, we are also increasing the range and diversity of weaker connections” (p. 15).
While I often draw on Benkler’s work and find myself in agreement with it far more often than not, the evidence recounted above suggests that his first claim about watching television less to use the Internet more is not correct. Internet use does not displace but complements television viewing.
More importantly, though, does the idea of the ‘prime-time Internet’ call into question all of the other benefits of tighter social bonds, reinvigorated citizen journalism, higher levels of political and community engagement, and an improved network public sphere that Benkler and others in far less qualified ways claim (e.g. see here and here)?
I do not think that we need to see this as a zero-sum game, where our pursuits of pleasure and entertainment comes at the expense of these other things. However, the rise of the prime-time Internet does demand at least a scaling down of the more hyperbolic views that the internet, by displacing television and other ‘mass media, has served fundamentally to refortify the atrophying social connections and to revive the possibilities for greater participation in social and political life that are essential to a decent democratic society.
Sure, the creative commons is being fortified with user-created content, citizen journalism is probably helping to improve the quality of journalism against a deep-seated backdrop of failures and woes, and the more connected online we are the more likely we will be connected to others around us in ‘real life’. For all those who see the Internet as a democratizing force and as having unleashed people’s inner political beast, however, the rise of the real-time Internet suggests that kicking back, goofing off and being entertained is still the centre of the media universe for a whole lot of people.