The return of Mad Men is just around the corner: season six premieres with two episodes on Sunday, April 7th at 9 pm Eastern time on AMC.
The time and channel info may be irrelevant for some of you. Thousands of people no longer bother with cable service, or even a television. Plenty have season passes to their favorite shows in iTunes, allowing them to download and watch new episodes the day after they first air on TV.
Others prefer to wait for DVD box sets so they can “binge-watch” entire seasons in a matter of days (or hours, depending on free time and level of commitment), or stream the episodes on Netflix or Hulu. If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can catch up on shows while riding the T.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, our choices were the three broadcast networks, PBS, and the local independent channels 38 and 56. The television was encased in a wooden console designed to blend in with the living room furniture. We changed channels with a knob that made a loud clunk with each turn.
Along with the proliferation of channels available on cable and satellite, there are an unprecedented variety of choices for how we can view our favorite shows. We are not yet at the point of being able to watch any movie or TV show ever made any time we feel like it and wherever we happen to be, but it is starting to feel like that may be possible within another ten years or so.
Shows are also beginning to find their way to the viewing public from new sources. In February Netflix launched House Of Cards, a drama set in Washington that they financed. In May they are offering new episodes of the beloved comedy Arrested Development, and Netflix has several other shows planned for this year.
Not wanting to be left behind, Amazon is developing original content with a different approach: they have funded the production of half a dozen pilot episodes, which will be available later this year, and viewers will be asked to choose which ones they enjoyed the most, helping to decide which shows get a series order.
It may no longer be accurate to refer to programming from sources like Netflix and Amazon as “television” shows, since they are not originating from a television network or channel.
There is increasing pressure on premium cable channels like HBO to offer online streaming access to its original shows to those who do not have cable TV service in their homes. HBO has signaled that it is considering a way to provide this access at some point, but has not committed to anything.
Meanwhile, the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and UPN) continue to cling to the antiquated idea that viewers still plan to sit down in front of their TVs to watch their favorite shows as they are aired. I don’t know anyone who still does this except perhaps my mother, who is 74, and even she got a DVR a couple of years ago and has grown accustomed to using it.
Time-shifting is a huge convenience for those who need to go to sleep early, who like two shows that are on at the same time, or who prefer to avoid being subjected to intelligence-insulting commercials. Networks now count those who record a show and watch it within seven days of its original airdate as part of the show’s overall ratings number.
But given the sweeping changes that have transformed the television landscape over the past decade, how much longer will time slots and ratings remain relevant? And for people like me who choose to continue being cable customers for the time being, how much longer do we have to wait for the option of a la carte programming, which would allow subscribers to receive only those channels they care to watch?
In spite of the transformation in television—what’s on and when, how we watch, where we watch—the industry remains bound to habits and patterns that are rapidly approaching obsolescence. The key question is whether they will adapt their offerings to the demands of viewers, or be left behind and fade into history.