There's a cracking article on the Wired website that details how network TV is circling the drain in America, swamped by minority interest channels. Fifty-five per cent of the total audience is watching cable - basic channels and pay services like HBO and Showtime. The old model of broadcast TV that tries to please everyone simply doesn't work in a modern, fragmented media market. Niche is the new normal.
I'm no expert, but it looks like the same situation's arising in the UK. Broadcast reports today that terrestrial TV [i.e. BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Five] accounted for 66.6% of market share. In other words two thirds of all viewers were watching one of the five main channels. The rest were watching digital channels like Dave, Sky One, E4 or BBC3 via satellite or cable. So British hasn't fragmented as badly - yet.
There's another significant differences between the UK and the US. On this side of the pond the BBC doesn't depend upon advertising revenue to survive, so two of the five main channels have some protecting from our splintering viewing habits. The others have already adopted some of the strategies for survival outlined in the Wired article, like pursuing a slice of the non-terrestrial audience via digital spin-off channels [e.g. ITV 2, C4+1].
But the nature of television is changing, evolving ever more rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic. what the future holds remains unclear, but one thing seems certain: as audiences for individual shows gets smaller, so budgets will contract. Imagination remains the best hope. People always want to be told stories. So let's tell them the best stories we can. Onwards.