Water Cooler Talk

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a brief look at the business of show business today.

In 1994, 204 million Americans watched the winter Olympics in the picturesque Norwegian town of Lillehammer. The games that just ended in Vancouver had an 8% smaller audience. Which seems even worse considering that there are something like 20% more Americans now than there were in 1994.

But wait a minute. Lillehamer had the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding soap opera. Not to mention the fact that in 1994, people were still actually watching network television. Viewers hadn't been siphoned off by HBO or Showtime or ESPN; people weren't poking on Facebook or playing Wurdle on their iPhones. The Olympics even beat the American idol juggernaut one night. And that is saying something.

It really seems like that the big sports and award events on the broadcast networks are making a serious rebound. The last decade saw some sad, sad numbers…but last year the ratings went up for the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, the American Music Awards, the Country Music Awards and even the Tonys, for God's sake. The Superbowl did great; the World Series literally came back from the dead: ratings were up 36% from the series low mark the previous year.

And this year is off the hook: the Superbowl was the most-watched TV program in US history, topping the 27-year-old record held by the finale of M*A*S*H. The Grammys had the most viewers since 2004. The Golden Globes, which has been the show slowest to revive, was up 14% this January. And this weekend's Oscars – with Avatar, the biggest movie of all time as its centerpiece – can't help but score big ratings.

So why are all these live events doing so well?

I can say what I know for sure about why these TV events seem to be back, and I can offer my theories.

First, the stuff I can back up with data.

Live TV certainly has its advantages these days, whether its events like the Superbowl, or regular shows like Idol or Dancing with the Stars. Ironically, it is old fashioned live TV that is able to defeat all that new technology intended to skip ads and delay viewing. Tivoing the Superbowl or waiting for the DVD of American Idol just doesn't work.

Which doesn't explain the success of the Olympics since, as usual, it was mostly on tape in prime time. But it's live in a way – I call it live-lite – people work so hard not to know what happened that it feels live when they finally watch the taped broadcast.

Ok, so live shows make available rating-killing technologies obsolete and that explains one reason the numbers are coming back up. But I think there's more at work…and I freely admit that I'm venturing into wild conjecture here.

I say that broadcast TV's challengers – the web and all those terrific cable TV shows – are finally starting to lose their novelty. Think about it: YouTube is five years old. The Sopranos debuted in 1999. And while cat videos and friending people are still big, people are realizing that there's something missing: water cooler talk.

Think about the times when entertainment seems most satisfying: when we share a common experience. And that's true on TV as well as on-line – “David after the dentist” on YouTube and the recent wave of doppleganger profile pictures on Facebook are really the most fun.

Which is also why the movie theaters aren't going anywhere – the shared experience.

So advice for network TV execs – give us an exciting TV event and produce it with the TV audience in mind and I think Americans young and old will watch. Of course, the next thing we need to discuss is what "watch" actually means:

Because, according to preliminary Nielsen data, almost 13% of viewers tuning in to last week's Olympic opening ceremonies were also multi-tasking on the web.

I'd love to know what you think…post your comments or podcast this program at www.KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman