Television is still the dominant outlet for video broadcasts, according to recent statistics released by the Council for Research Excellence, a group funded by Nielsen Media Research. But, with the popularity of rebroadcast Web sites such as Hulu.com, some experts say there may be a question of how long traditional television can stay on top.

Jeanne Wendel, professor of economics at University of Nevada, Reno, framed the television-internet battle in terms of new technologies competing against old ones. She said consumers can now choose among cable companies, Internet companies, city broadcasting and broadcast networks for information and entertainment.

“The Internet is big, cheap and doesn’t have the capacity constraints of cable,” Wendel said.

The Video Consumer Mapping Study, conducted in 2008, found that traditional television programming remains the most widely viewed form of video among all age groups.

The VCM also found that those aged 18 to 24 spend the most time of any age group watching “computer video,” averaging 5.5 minutes daily. This same group consumes 209.9 minutes of “live TV” daily.

However, Larry Dailey, chair of media technology for the Reynolds School of Journalism, said he believes general viewing habits are changing, based on his own observations.

“I think everybody’s trying to understand what the Internet is going to be,” Dailey said. “It’s still a teenager and kind of rebellious.”

Ben Seelbinder, a 21-year-old computer science major, said he generally doesn’t watch broadcast television. He said he prefers to watch program rebroadcasts on network television Web sites.

“I think that most people still watch broadcast,” Seelbinder said. “But I think broadcast TV could become part of your Internet package. You could pay for cable through your computer.”

Dailey said the Internet and older broadcast companies have different programming models. Traditional broadcast models provide programming only at specific times. The Internet model, he said, is more flexible and convenient for consumers.

“Audiences will start asking, ‘Why should I watch my local news only at six?’” Dailey said. “Broadcast will probably fight this trend.”

Dailey compared the Internet revolution to the transformation the music industry is now undergoing.

“The music industry has fought all along (against) people downloading music,” Dailey said. “They’ve been in control.”

Another issue for Internet broadcasting could paralell the problems that surrounded the emergence of television as a major media outlet, Wendel said. For example, in the early days of broadcast television, federal requirements forced broadcast companies to carry public service information, she said. Any providers who entered the market without this requirement had an edge.

“This hasn’t gone away,” Wendel said. “The Internet could have the same issues.”

Steven Zink, UNR’s vice president of information technology, described what he calls the “splintering” of media outlets in an attempt to cater to progressively smaller, more specialized audiences.

“When I was young, there were essentially four (television) stations:  ABC, NBC, CBS and eventually PBS,” Zink said. “Cable was the beginning of the splintering.”

Zink said the Internet, because it caters to small niche markets, is a continuation of the process.

“What you’ve got is what I call a mass personalization,” Zink said. “(Broadcasting) goes from one-to-millions to, I guess, one-to-one.”

The splintering process is “just killing” traditional broadcasting companies and high-cost companies such as news outlets, Zink said.

Tom Cargill, professor of economics at UNR, said the extent to which the Internet and television can be combined also affects the conflict between old and new broadcast technologies.

“It’s a shift in the old style of network broadcasting that’s happening,” Cargill said. “It’s not so much a decline in TV as in where the signal is coming from.”

Cargill said television viewing, in terms of watching a television screen, is not at issue.

“No one wants to watch everything on a computer screen,” he said.

Cargill emphasized the importance of advertising revenue for broadcast and media companies. The term “soap opera,” he said, emerged in the 1950s, when many women remained in the household. Detergent companies sponsored daytime slots to direct their advertisements at these women.

“These shows make money off ads,” Cargill said. “It’s important.”

Zink said advertising is a central component of the Internet revolution.

“It depends on how much people are willing to pay for advertising in increasingly small markets,” he said. “It may be harder to measure ad statistics. The question is how to stretch the ad revenue to such a small audience.”

Zink said Web sites such as Hulu that provide access to rebroadcasts of television programs could encounter difficulties in sustaining themselves financially.

“No one will pay to see (programs) again,” Zink said. “It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain that.”

Hulu offers rebroadcasts from a wide variety of television networks, including Fox and NBC. Brandon Boone, a Hulu spokesperson, said online video “has not adversely affected broadcast television viewership,” according to the VCM.

Regardless, Wendel said the Internet revolution will produce “a lot of change,” and that “a lot of people,” including advertisers, will be forced to reassess the current business climate. Dailey agreed, saying that change naturally causes discomfort and traditional broadcasters will resist change.

“The question will be whether these industries recognize whether this discomfort is a growing pain or the discomfort that comes with death,” Dailey said.

“For consumers, it’s an opportunity,” Wendel said. “That’s how competitive market forces always are. There are a lot of people now who didn’t think they were in competition before.”

Zink said that the mass personalization of the media market, even with increased specialization, is not a clear victory for the consumer.

“Now, you don’t have to watch the State of the Union, you can watch basketball,” he said. “What’s the communicative value of having a mass communication experience?  It comes with cultural identity.”

Aaron Benedetti can be reached at news@nevadasagebrush.com.

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