Saturday 24th February 2018,

What is “Television”? Broadcast, It Is Not

TVbytheNumbers recently published the chart above, numbers crunched by Turner using Nielsen ratings. The graph shows the share of the 18-49 demographic received by cable networks vs. broadcast networks (pay-cable is excluded; and, of course, a reminder that 18-49 is all that matters). As you can see, in terms of where ad dollars are going to go, it’s cable.

I wanted to post this so scholars, web series producers and everyone invested in television can take note that, when we speak of “television” we need to place equal if not more importance on cable. It sounds obvious — especially post-Oprah — but it’s surprising how often popular culture assumes the implicit cultural dominance of broadcast (the diminished economic dominance of broadcast has been well documented, though I’m not sure how aware Americans are of this fact).

Yes, we all know cable is where it’s at now because Oprah’s going there, and we know that wherever Oprah is, that’s the place to be. Still, I’m reading a lot about television history right now — preparing a number of papers on web series — and realizing the decades-long domination of broadcast has positioned it as “television” in our minds. When we say “television,” we mean NBC, ABC, CBS, first, then MTV, TBS, FX, etc. Even today, I would argue.

I hear this when I interview people in the web industry, who often critique television. These criticisms, usually warranted, are often more applicable to broadcast. I make the mistake too. I’ve been particularly guilty in my writing on black web series, making the assumption that the lack of major black characters (and all or mostly black casts) is endemic to “television.” The more I think about, the more it’s not. There’s both of Tyler Perry’s shows, ABC Family’s Lincoln Heights, BET has a few shows, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (though not repped in the graph above), HawthoRNe, Sherri, The Boondocks; we can even think of shows like Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta as a black show, and of course we have both Mo’Nique, Wanda Sykes and George Lopez in late night. In two years, we’ll have Oprah. That’s a pretty broad spectrum of black narratives and representations.

To be sure, broadcast is still important. They still produced more series than individual cable networks. Culturally speaking, the maintain a place of symbolic importance. They house a lot of history. Until recently, you could grab them from the air (I guess you still can). I would argue this assumption is what allows a show like Sons and Anarchy to “slip under the radar” of the media even as its 18-49 ratings regularly broaches that of broadcast shows like Jay Leno.

Some of the cultural dominance of broadcast has to do with its presumed pursuit of large audiences; cable is for niches, popular thinking goes. But of course, anyone knowledgeable about television history knows that narrowcasting began in earnest in the 1990s with both broadcast and cable. Today, broadcast shows are as much targeted at niches as cable shows. It seems cable is doing it much better. Indeed, the shows I crave are increasingly cable-dominated (basic and pay): Damages, Mad Men, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, In Treatment, to name a few. (Though it’s become cliche to say cable is where all the innovation is happening — broadcast is certainly trying and always comes up with gems; sometimes the audience just isn’t there.)

In ten years, when we say “television,” will everyone think of OWN?

Share This Article

About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.