Opinion » Letter From The Editor

All The News That Flits

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Do you double-screen? By that, I mean do you watch television with your laptop open or your phone in your hand? According to a report this week from Accenture Consulting, 87 percent of Americans watch TV with another screen in use. We're Tweeting, posting on Facebook, texting, and reading online articles while catching the latest episode of The Bachelorette, or whatever. We've become multi-taskers, even as we goof off. Multi-goofers?

And not only are Americans double-screening, they're continuing to turn away from traditional television viewing — watching a show as it's broadcast in its original timeslot — at prodigious rates. According to the Nielson ratings, traditional TV viewing in 2016 is down 11 percent from 2015.

The trend is being driven by young people (I refuse to use the "M" word), who are turning from traditional television in droves, eschewing cable and satellite packages for streaming subscriptions of various kinds and free internet options. The Nielson Report for the first quarter of 2016 showed that Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 watched an average of 15 hours of traditional television a week. Compare that to the 50-to-64 age bracket, which watched an average of 50 hours of traditional television a week.

It's easy to see that a generational watershed moment is coming for television and cable networks that will be similar in impact to the sea change that has deconstructed the daily newspaper business in the past decade or so. Our consumption of media will continue to "silo" for the foreseeable future.

The trend has been somewhat masked this year because of the presidential race — and Donald Trump — which has brought record increases in viewership and revenues for cable news outfits such Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Fox News, in fact, is having its best year ever, averaging over 2.37 million viewers in primetime, which surpassed former cable viewing leader, ESPN.

Of course, compared to network news ratings in the years before cable and the internet fragmented the American viewing audience, that number is a pittance. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, for example, once averaged 30 million viewers a night. Television news then was a family banquet, one where we all shared the same meal. It's now a takeout pu-pu platter.

And those seemingly healthy Fox News numbers mask another issue that the fair-and-balanced folks will have to deal with very soon: The median age of their viewers is 68 — mostly male, mostly white, mostly conservative. That means more than half of Fox News viewers are over 68. To say that the network is facing a demographic challenge in the next few years is an understatement.

To the extent that they watch cable news, CNN is the choice of most younger viewers. But at 1.4 million total viewers a night, it's a bite of leftover dim sum.

It's gotten so that we only come out of our silos when events force us to do so. A major disaster, a mass shooting, a terrorist attack, a Super Bowl — or possibly a presidential debate — can lure us away from the mind candy we feed ourselves all day long. Not much else.

I guess the silver lining is that the devices we use to cocoon ourselves are also the very things that bring us together instantly — that alert us to events and update us on breaking news faster than Walter Cronkite ever thought about doing. When Gene Wilder died this week, I knew the details of his passing within minutes. Within a half-hour, I'd seen links to his best scenes and to tributes from dozens of people. I could pick and choose what — if anything — I wanted to see or read. I never thought about turning on the TV. It all just popped up in my social media feeds.

And maybe that's the "news" of the future — instant and self-selected. Maybe we should all start thinking of ourselves as little cable networks.

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