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Traditional television offers what we need right now: Human connection

Traditional television offers what we need right now: Human connection
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A nation in isolation now finds itself searching for comfort and connection through the soothing routines of earlier, simpler times. We bake bread, sew scarves, and — increasingly — even watch network broadcast television.

Make no mistake, viewership for all forms of video is up sharply, as most of America remains stuck inside with few ways to pass the days. But the broadcast surge is especially noteworthy in a society that until now has reveled in the endless choices and fragmentation of modern digital media.

Broadcast is not about endless choice. There are only five networks which — as they have for decades — schedule exactly when their shows will air. For at least two decades, we have rebelled against this, demanding to watch whatever we want, whenever we want. We turned to internet streaming services, moving away from shows designed for broad audience appeal to programs that were increasingly specialized. As a viewing public, we separated and atomized.

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But it turns out broadcasting delivers us something suddenly in short supply: human connection. The universal themes and populist appeal of most network shows allow everyone stuck at home to watch something together. And the set-in-stone broadcast TV schedule means you share that viewing experience in real time with millions of other people across the country.

Of course, there was always a cold business imperative behind all of this: More people viewing one show at the same time meant more advertising money for the network. Several generations watching together made it possible to sell toys, cars and pharmaceuticals, all in the same sitting. Whatever the economics, broadcast television evolved into a national story-telling campfire, with tens of millions following along, chapter by chapter, week by week.

Programs seeing the biggest increases now emphasize that connection.

Network evening newscasts are booming, up a combined 42 percent since the coronavirus story began. This isn’t surprising; after all, we’re hungry for information. But we’re also hungry for credible information, facts we can confidently share with others and discuss, free from the political slant of cable or the deep web’s conspiratorial rants. Twelve million people now watch NBC’s Nightly News each evening, another 12 million turn to ABC’s “World News Tonight.” Cable outlets have spiked, too. But, even with that boost, ratings champion Fox News averages a comparatively modest 4.2 million viewers in primetime.

Other hit shows of the social distancing epoch include NBC’s “The Voice,” Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” and ABC’s 30-year old primetime warhorse, “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” In daytime, game shows are experiencing the biggest gains: CBS’s classic “Let’s Make A Deal” has attracted its highest ratings in 11 years.

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All of these programs recall a time when TV was meant for family viewing, watched together. And they offer another kind of connection: a live studio audience. Many shows, especially game shows, are taped far in advance, when studios could still be filled with people. This delivers self-isolated viewers something else from a bygone era: other humans. Cheering, shouting, happy humans. Research I studied as a TV executive indicated those studio audiences — on talk shows and sitcoms, as well as game shows — were an important way for viewers, especially shut-ins like the elderly, to feel some kind of connection to the outside world.

We’re all shut-ins now. We’re all looking for some way to connect, both with the people confined right there alongside us and the people outside our very shrunken orbits. Once the crisis has lifted, we’ll most likely go back to old habits, including ideological news bubbles and fragmented viewing choices: everyone glued to his or her own screen, deep in a sort of self-imposed self-isolation that’s celebrated as a consumer-driven triumph of choice. 

But maybe not. It’s possible that we’ll enjoy the re-discovery of broadcasting as something communal. And — who knows? — maybe we’ll want to maintain the connection it provided during that somber time when public service announcements on network TV reminded us that “We’re all in this together.”

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.