Switched off: is the end of non-streaming TV on the horizon?

Founded in 2006, the CW turns 16 years old this year, which feels right considering it has always branded itself as the younger, hipper brother to the bigger networks. The buzziest series on the CW are centered on teenagers: Riverdale, a modern, supernatural update on the Archie comics, and All American, about a Black high school football player recruited to play for a school in Beverly Hills. They also have two superhero shows, Superman & Lois and The Flash, which also theoretically appeal to younger audiences. Youthful content, however, does not necessarily equal youthful viewers, which we learned this week when it was revealed that the average age of a CW viewer is 58.

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In a twist worthy of Riverdale itself, which recently featured a time travel storyline, the hip, young viewers of the CW have suddenly turned middle-aged. Or maybe not. The data cited by Nexstar, a media group that has just bought a controlling interest in the network, tracks only initial viewership and some DVR viewing. It says nothing of viewing on streaming services, where younger viewers increasingly get their television. For that, the youth has options. The CW has its own streaming site where shows can be viewed for free, but they also have a licensing deal with Netflix. In other words, while it’s possible Riverdale and All American are being watched by gray-haired viewers, most of its fans are still watching it on Netflix while keeping one eye on TikTok.

The news was good fodder for jokes on social media, but its implications are stark. It’s no industry secret that streaming is on its way to becoming the dominant format for television – and maybe even movies – but this announcement essentially gives us the expiration date for broadcast and cable. If a network as youth-oriented as the CW has an average viewing age approaching 60 – and only one other network, FOX, has a younger audience at 56 – the end of “traditional television” is on the horizon. To put it bluntly, the folks who watch broadcast and cable will not be around forever, and when they’re gone, there will be few viewers left who don’t see streaming as the norm.

And if that wasn’t enough to scare network executives, consider this: last month, for the first time ever, streaming platforms surpassed cable in popularity. The streamers had beaten out broadcast networks before, but cable had continued to hold on to its spot at the top until July, when streaming represented 34.8% of total consumption in the US, with cable coming in at 34.4% and broadcast limping to a third-place finish with 21.6%. To be sure, the conditions were just right for this. Streaming had a particularly strong month, with the fourth season of Stranger Things and The Gray Man, starring Hollywood stars Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans, premiering on Netflix. Meanwhile, Amazon Prime’s The Terminal List racked up over 1.5bn minutes of viewing despite dismal reviews.

It also didn’t help that it was the only month of the year without either NBA or NFL action. Of the four major US sports, only baseball has games in July. Live events, especially sports, are increasingly the only thing cable and broadcast television have going for it, but the streaming services are making their play here. AppleTV+ has begun streaming baseball on Friday nights, and starting next year, it will be the sole television provider of Major League Soccer.

More importantly, Amazon Prime will hold exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football starting this fall. The NFL might be the only thing keeping the networks afloat; for the 2021-2022 television season, football dominated the ratings, with various weekly football telecasts making up each of the top four spots. The NFL has been part of the network television landscape from nearly the beginning; games started being broadcast regularly soon after the second world war, and the first championship game to be nationally televised came in 1948. If streaming services ever deepen their inroads with the NFL, broadcast TV will be as good as dead, and cable will be on life support.

Then again, every end brings new opportunities. Maybe traditional television could find a way to reinvent itself, albeit with lower expectations for ratings. The CW have announced a goal of shifting their demographic focus, creating more content that will appeal to their older viewers. There will be fewer original, scripted programs, and more “high-quality syndicated programming” and unscripted shows. This probably means reality television and competitions shows like The Masked Singer and America’s Got Talent. Sports were not mentioned. The goal isn’t to increase the ratings to where they once were. It’s a strategy of efficiency, saving money while catering to the core audience, but it’s hardly certain to stave off the inevitability of the streaming revolution. Like their viewers, broadcast and cable television aren’t guaranteed to go on forever, and for the first time, it feels like the end is in sight.