Is new media hurting or helping TV?

Insiders meet to discuss the future of the medium

NEW YORK -- A conference Tuesday on the future of television turned up differing opinions about whether new-media options were hurting or helping TV ratings.

Several members of TV-heavy traditional media companies, including CBS Corp. and NBC Universal, said full-length Web videos on sites like Hulu and the broadcast networks' own sites were starting to see some real traction with millions of users. They said that it was helping, not hurting, TV use. Yet a forthcoming IBM study, which was presented in part on the first day of the Future of Television conference in lower Manhattan, showed that TV use is declining among a small but growing part of viewers who are watching TV shows on computers and mobile devices.

"It's really now having an effect," said William Serrao, an executive with IBM Global Business Services.

Serrao said that IBM's study, which will be published at some point under the working title "Beyond Advertising: Fact or Fiction," surveyed two distinct groups: Media consumers between 13 and 35 and those over 35. PC and mobile viewing has grown substantially within the past year. For the 76% of those surveyed who said that they're watching video online, more than 50% said it's reduced their TV viewing.

Another presenter, Accenture executive David Wolf, said that 60% of those under 35 were more likely to watch TV on a computer or mobile device. Many are "fed up" with linear TV, he said.

Yet the network representatives, including CBS research chief David Poltrack and NBC Uni's Jean-Briac Perrette, defended TV. Perrette said that despite heavy Internet offerings there were historic ratings for the Beijing Olympics, "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," which was available online well before its linear-TV season premiere.

"Multiplatform (availability) seems to be raising TV audiences ... rather than drawing them away," Perrette said.

Poltrack agreed, citing data that showed that TV viewing among all age groups has gone up at least 7%-8% since 2000. He said that one show in particular, CBS's "How I Met Your Mother," proves how beneficial online exposure can be. On CBS, the average age of the show's viewer is in the mid-40s. On, it's 28.

"The two platforms really do work together to build the base of the franchise audience," he said.

But with all the good news, the economy -- and how poor it is right now -- was never far from the discussion. Shawn DuBravac, senior economist at the Consumer Electronics Assn., painted a bleak picture of holiday sales and suggested that the previously recession-proof box office and pay cable would suffer this time around.

DuBravac said that consumers, who are cutting back on discretionary expenses, are not likely to want to pay $100 or more for an evening at the movies when you factor in babysitting, the movies, traveling costs and dinner out. They're more likely to spend money on things like flat-panel TVs and home theater systems. DuBravac also said that pay cable bills may have in past recessions been the last discretionary spending to be cut.

"Now you're going to see more pressure on those bills," he said.