When my children bypass entertainment alternatives (board games, books, the Internet, wrestling on the floor, jumping-get down!-on the bed) and settle in front of the TV, they have a wide range of options. They can play "Finding Nemo" or any one of a dozen films we own on DVD. They can watch a show stored on the hard drive of our Replay personal-video recorder. They can pop a game into the PlayStation2. Sometimes they connect the digital camera to the box, set it to video mode and watch themselves perform on the small screen.
Oh, yes-they can also watch TV.
Let's say they choose that last option. Time Warner's digital cable service offers several hundred channels, quite a few commercial-free and featuring libraries of movies, specials and series available on demand and at no extra cost. The on-screen programming guide is easy to navigate. The kids don't distinguish between broadcast and cable networks. Channel position is also meaningless. You push the same number of buttons on the remote to reach channel 004 and channel 835.
"Jack," I said to my middle guy the other night, "do you know what cable TV is?" Nope. "Broadcast TV?" Nope. "Do you know what a network is?" "Dad," he says, clearly exasperated now, "all I know about TV is that they show cartoons." He knows where to find them, too.
I'm old enough to know the difference between cable and broadcast, and to remember when cartoons could only be viewed when broadcasters offered them up on Saturday mornings. But, like my kids, I couldn't care less. I've got the same options when I sit in front of the TV that they do, and these days I'm far more likely to click on a cable network or view a movie.
The production values of cable programming often rival those of broadcast TV. When it comes to ad pricing, cable and broadcast are still separated by a ridiculously wide cost-per-thousand gap. When it comes to quality, the gap favors cable, which offers far more original, high-quality and innovative programming. Watch one episode of any broadcast network prime-time sitcom, then one episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It's not even close.
The good news for networks is that they seem finally to realize that their best bet for remaining a primary media choice of marketers looking to sell stuff may be to steal a page from rivals' playbooks. The "we've always done it that way" mentality has given way to the more practical "if you can't beat them, copy them." NBC, like Fox before it, will move to end the idea of a traditional fall start to the new season-if only in an attempt to maintain momentum coming out of its Summer Olympics telecasts. Most of the rest of the broadcast pack is looking into shorter show cycles, staggered debuts and other cable-inspired strategies to attract and retain audiences. They're also experimenting with programs that break the time-worn rules, such as Fox's laugh-track-free "Arrested Development" and Fox's sort-of-real-time "24." The economics, particularly for premium networks such as HBO, make it easier for cable networks to break the model. But broadcasters have little choice.
There is in their moves recognition that the jig is up. If the over-the-air gang proves successful at reinvention, the fact that my kids don't know the difference between cable and broadcast could-over the next decade-become an advantage rather than a liability.