TV-news-exec-turned-college-professor Mark Effron asked his students what media they used in the past 24 hours. You can imagine what was on the list. Media consumed: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, movies and series on Netflix, Google and an occasional news site like CNN.com. Devices: Smartphones (overwhelmingly), tablets, some laptops, an occasional Xbox. Missing in action: television.
As a television news executive, I would await the results of research with anticipation and often trepidation. I remember nights before big presentations, tossing and turning, wondering if the results would validate what I was doing — or repudiate them. Was I satisfying my core audience? Was I growing new viewers, especially younger ones?
The underlying assumption, of course, was that everybody watched television. The question then, was whether we were doing enough of the right things to get enough of that everybody population to watch the television that I was responsible for?
I can still feel the letting go of held breath, last year, when I was VP-news director at a New York station, when a major study that the station commissioned showed that changes we had made were attracting and growing an audience, and sure enough, the Nielsen ratings soon bore that out.
Now, I’m a college professor, teaching courses on journalism, media law and ethics, media writing, and media and society. In order to gauge how the students in one of those classes used media, I asked them to write down all of the media they consumed over the last 24 hours, and on what devices they consumed it on.
You can imagine what was on the list. Media consumed: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, movies and series on Netflix, Google and an occasional news site like CNN.com. Devices: Smartphones (overwhelmingly), tablets, some laptops, an occasional Xbox.
Missing in action: television.
Only two students in a class of more than 20 even mentioned television.
In order to make sure that, though highly unlikely, I was dealing with a group of young adults who were never into television in the first place, I asked them to compile a list of their viewing habits from five years ago. The vast majority of them cited “watching TV.” The devices of five years ago included the television, the desktop and the cell phone. The cell phone was getting smarter then, but had not yet achieved its primacy. TV was still “what they did.”
Why didn’t they watch TV? Because they could watch what they wanted when they wanted on their handiest device. And they lived so much on their phones that kept them connected to friends on Facebook and people they were following on Twitter, and showed them the way with Google Maps, that it just made sense that they would consume the media they wanted that same way.
Many of the names that still resonate with an older TV-centric audience (Brian Williams anyone?) meant nothing to them. Yet, these students were, overall, very current on news, including the shootings in Roanoke, the rise of Donald Trump or the migrant crisis playing out across Europe.
This informal survey took my breath away. Yes, I have read like everyone else (and observed from my own behavior) how media have migrated to mobile, to “everything right now on the device that’s attached to me.” But, it’s somehow more real to stand in front of a class of students, and hear them talk about how, for them, watching content on channels and networks and stations hasn’t only lessened, it’s actually fallen off the cliff.
Someone in the class mentioned watching the CW five years ago, and others went nostalgic, as my generation might remember a favorite group from the 1960s. Even accounting for a bit of hyperbole, or forgotten, furtive minutes in front of a TV, the lesson was irrefutable: people in their 20s don’t watch much television. It’s becoming as irrelevant to them as picking up a newspaper.
For all media executives, the rush to full platform agnosticism cannot come fast enough. But, the bigger question for TV stations, I think, is, what does that really mean? What will a local TV station be when these students graduate and begin families? Will they come back to TV? If so, why? I invite any of my former TV colleagues to come visit one of my classes. I promise it will take their breath away as well.
Mark Effron, a veteran media executive, is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.