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Primetime Mystery: Where Did All the TV Viewers Go?

contributors@theatlantic.com (Derek Thompson)

Here's the wow-quote of the day, from Jeff Gaspin, the head of entertainment at NBC, telling from The New York Times he's just discovered that watching TV shows on-demand is more satisfying than watching them live.

"The commercials broke the tension ... I hate to say this to the AMC executives and everybody else in the business, but I will never watch 'Walking Dead' live again."

If a gaffe is the unwitting blurting of a truth, that's a classic gaffe. The head of NBC acknowledged that nobody's watching the networks live because they've all found superior ways to consume television.

Live ratings have declined for 14 straight quarters across the networks. Meanwhile, NBC is getting regularly smacked around by ABC, CBS, and Fox. It's barely outperformed Univision when you take out sports, according to TV by the Numbers.

This is a short-term acceleration of a long-term trend. Since 1985, the networks' share of primetime TV audience (dark blue in the graph below) has declined from nearly half to 25% in 2009. Basic cable has eaten the networks' lunch post-dinner audience, and now it's technology's turn gobble up what's left.

Even with this long trend line (and despite the fact that audiences often decline during the spring whether or not they have DVRs), there is a sense that we've reached a tipping point thanks to what Gaspin calls "built-up libraries." There is more good stuff to watch not-on-live-TV than on live-TV.

Television technologies are dragging us away from live television, to a world of smaller screens, shifting "windows," and no more ads. In 2000, a company called Netflix was experimenting with movie rentals. Now they have more than 20 million streaming customers. In 2005, about 1% of households owned DVRs. Today, it's more than 40%. In 2006, Hulu didn't exist. Today it has just under 30 million monthly uniques, with more than 1 million paying subscribers. In 2009, there were no iPads. Today, there are 60 million, and most of them are in the United States. That's a Cambrian explosion of options for "watching TV" without literally watching an actual TV.

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