Football, Risks and The Coninuing Growth of Television

Sunday night FOX put on the yearly spectacle known as The Super Bowl. And despite botched national anthems and crappy half time shows, the 45th football throw down managed to set the record for the highest viewership of any television program, ever in the history of television. The number? One hundred and eleven million people.

This also marks the first time any network, in this case FOX, has crossed the one hundred million mark in a single prime time evening. Now I know what you’re saying to yourself, “so what? It was the f’n Super Bowl, of course it was high.” And I agree, but I’m not here to focus on the Super Bowl, but rather what that number represents.

Let’s imagine that out of that one hundred million, forty percent watch television on a regular basis. I think we can all agree that forty million people is a fair estimate, between those who watch television live, those who DVR it, those who watch it online through services like HULU and Netflix and yes those who illegally download it.

Let’s then put that forty million into movie terms. Let’s say every one of those people goes to a movie and pays the average ten dollar price tag for a ticket. That movie would become the 12th highest grossing movie of all time – making four hundred million dollars. In other words, there are more people today that watch television than saw Inception in the United States. So I then had to pose the question, why?

Why in an age where films like Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass, Splice, Buried and Macgruber struggle just to break even, is NCIS continuing to set all time highs in its eighth season. How is it that we live an age where The Losers comes in fourth to The Back-Up Plan? After pondering this for a long time, long time before the recent Super Bowl numbers even came out, I think I figured it out. And I think the answer can be contributed to two things, immediacy and the willingness to take risks.

Let me address the simpler of those two first, which is immediacy. Think for a moment the process required to see a film. First you have to of been exposed to the films presence in some way, whether it be a TV ad, a bill board, an internet flash animation box or even word of mouth. Then you have to wait, and wait for the movie to actually come out in theaters. Then you have to look up a time to see it, but then things get even more complicated because your friends want to see the flick too. Now you have to work around three schedules instead of one. And finally once you’ve worked out a time you can all go, you have to actually make a trip to the theater, pay your ten bucks, and sit down. A fun, but when broken down, rather complex and sometimes annoying process.

Now lets run down the process of watching television. The same first step is required, you have to be made aware of a program’s presence. But that’s where the similarities end.

Maybe some of you would wait till the show airs live. Many of you would probably partake in the now mainstream trend of setting your DVR, and watching at your convenience. And some of you would probably just wait till the next day and watch it on HULU. But regardless of your method, the biggest draw is that you the viewer is basically in full control of your immediate viewing experience. You can choose to skip and ignore ads. You can choose to pause, rewind, watch again, all for the low, low price, of basically free.

And that’s above all else, the reason why television controls more eyes than film in today’s “gotta have it now” world. It’s neither bad nor good, it just is. Anybody can pick up a remote. That seven year old you got hanging around in the den after school, I’ll bet you a hundred bucks they know how to DVR Sponge Bob. That same seven year old can’t drive them-self to the theater for Cars 2.

But what about the second half? The willingness to take risk. And when I say that, yes, I’m referring to the studios. Terriers, Lone Star, Chase, The Good Guys, My Generation, Persons Unknown, every single one of these shows were either canceled very early in their run, or were not picked up for a second season. And regardless of their popularity, or in some cases quality, every single one represents a gamble. And a very risky one at that. None of these shows were based on some sort of established comic book franchise or previous installment. None of them contained any sort of star power. And none of them walked into the loving arms of fickle audience. Every single one of them had to pay their dues. And it’s the willingness of the television networks to just, as Kevin Smith puts it “try shit,” that shows like LOST, 24, Law & Order, The Walking Dead, Justified, Community, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are born.

People are drawn to television, not because of the originality, though it’s a plus, but because of the vast catalog of available programming. You can be a cop nut and be very happy with CBS. Or a drama nut, in which case FX and AMC are for you. Or maybe your a comedy freak, well than I’ve got three letters for you, NBC. Or how about some wholesome witty dialogue, well I would like to introduce you to USA Network.

No matter what you love, no matter where your tastes lie, you have a home on the “small screen.” Film stopped offering a vast catalog right around the time everyone went into a financial hole thanks to Hollywood funny money. And today, people just want their options, at the lowest price. And thankfully, that option sits 52" large in 1080p right in their living rooms.

So why did the Super Bowl get watched by one hundred and eleven million people on Sunday? Well let me answer that by asking you this, did you Tivo it?

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