Anyone old enough to remember RF switchers knows that video games and network television have long competed for the same eyeballs on the same TV set.
Only recently does it feel like games are getting credit - or blame, rather - for contributing to the decline of prime time programming. This discussion has reconstituted itself over the past two weeks with the NBC's intramural turf war over late night programming, which involves the Tonight Show - the seventh-longest running television series in history, begun in 1954. Interestingly, and I can't be alone, I have not seen a single second of it play out on any of the network broadcasts themselves, which might be indicative of problems even deeper than those posed by video games.
TiVo, cable television and the networks' own throat-slitting content decisions are all manifestations of the past 10 years or so; but video games have been something of a fifth network for NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox to contend with all along. It's an entertainment decision well older than the Internet, as anyone who whined about wanting to play on the den TV, or left family night to play a game in their room, can well remember. But only now, as game playing children of the 1980s and 1990s are adults making decisions in the 2000s is it really coming home to roost.
Nielsen [.pdf], the same folks who've given us television ratings for decades, found console gamers are most active between 3 and 10 p.m., with a dip around 7 p.m. If the PlayStation 3 is any indication, they're not watching any primetime network broadcasts at all. None of the top 30 network programs seen by PS3 users were seen in prime time. The network programming viewed by this heavy-user demographic was either the network news, David Letterman, or NBC's Late Night (hosted by Conan O'Brien at the time of the study).
Cable programs did marginally better with this group - 17 percent of the shows watched were seen in prime time. And that's for a segment Nielsen described as a "medium" television user. Xbox 360 players were characterized as "light" TV users.
This is for an 18-to-24 demographic, but if you were to compare them with older ages that share the same traits - single, childless, some college education - I think you'd find similar behaviors. It rather reflects my experience; when my television is on, it's almost always in the background. Only rarely is it tuned to non-sports or news programming and even then, it's typically something like Mythbusters - a fascinating show, but not a narrative. And I'm 36 years old, only a year older than the average video gamer age, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
There's something else at work here. Not only is the national conversation changing, the forums in which we have it also are changing. I'm thininking of employment in a traditional office and, by extension, the office cooler around which one talks about television. Like "The Office." Telecommuting was on the rise well before the onset of the current recession, and as contract work increases at the expense of full-time-with-benefits employment in its aftermath, we'll only see more of it. How is this important? People tend to keep up with their emotional reference groups. I remember when my parents forbade me from watching The Dukes of Hazzard and how out of place I felt when my second-grade friends would yammer on about how awesome it was. Today, I feel a stronger displacement when I have not played the current hottest game far more than I do having not seen a single episode of Heroes, one of the strongest shows among the gamer demographic.
And finally, don't overlook the content offerings. Notably, of the three biggest drama genres on network television - legal, medical and police - two have practically no console game analogue and the modern police drama like CSI (in addition to doing terribly as a game adaptation) is more procedural than action-oriented. It's a chicken-and-egg debate, of course, but remember when action shows like Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Airwolf, the A-Team and MacGyver, to say nothing of their police-action counterparts in earlier times, dominated prime-time programming? I argue these viewers' needs, cultivated as adolescents, are now served by video games, and television - especially on networks - is largely retrenching on islands that are either uninteresting to gamers, or haven't yet been reached by games.
Treating games as a serious competitor doesn't necessarily expose some nugget of wisdom that will save network television. But they do combine the serious content offering of cable alternatives or DVDs with the self service of TiVo or Internet viewing. That makes them more than a diversion; they're serious competitors, and unlike others, one gestating for more than 20 years now.