By Dom Serafini

Is there a real need for “appointment television,” when technology and new viewers’ behavior have made it obsolete, and, in some cases, even risky? Yes, this kind of television could still make sense for live sporting events, awards shows, series finales and some reality shows with audience participation –– the “can’t miss” type of shows –– but no longer for the rest of programming, including news, and even breaking news.

Naturally, “appointment television” still makes some sense for advertisers, but even there I’m not sure how much sense it actually makes, since it skews toward seniors, who tend to be slower to adopt new technologies. I agree on the need for a “critical mass” factor, but what’s the difference if all of us see the same show at different times?

Not even an argument concerning “demographics” could be used, since soon, these will be replaced by “populations” (small groups), which online marketers are now using.

Broadcasters are now investing an enormous amount of marketing power –– the equivalent of twisting viewers’ arms –– to keep this “appointment television” model.

In effect, TV networks are artificially keeping in place something that is not only becoming obsolete, but also anachronistic. If the industry would, instead, figure out new ways of generating “critical masses,” I’m sure an effective system to deliver spots to them will be found.

Thinking back, appointment television started losing its power with syndication, when one could see a good show either as a repeat or off net. It continued losing steam with VCRs –– even though consumers at large were not even able to change the clocks on their VCRs, so complex were they to program. It accelerated with the introduction of DVRs and TiVo-types (even more complex than VCRs) of devices. It sped up with cable net replays (full nights devoted to the same series with multiple episodes), and spun out of control with digital cable VoD.

Some argue that appointment television comprises shows with watercooler value, but that still doesn’t explain why this is more valuable at 9 p.m. than at 9:30 p.m.Why, for example, must we wait until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. to watch local New York City news. At those times, some of us are tired and sleepy. I’d like to watch local news at 7 p.m. At 9 p.m. I’d prefer to watch the soothing Antiques Road Show and not 24. Plus, in the U.S., Germany’s DW-TV news interferes with BBC World News –– both are on at 6 p.m. Is this the best way to promote the way to consume television, especially considering that technology now allows all of us to really enjoy it?

Television should be a pleasurable experience –– not a rush to beat the clock. It is a reminder of the so-called “blue laws” when, in some parts of the U.S., one had to rush into stores within certain hours to buy beer before the outlet ceased selling it. In Texas, for example, blue laws prohibited selling housewares such as pots, pans, and washing machines on Sundays until 1985.

Why do we have to watch a president Bush infomercial (e.g., the State of the Union address) after dinner? For that sort of thing, some of the public is better prepared in the pre-dinner hours. We don’t need the President to ruin our digestion (“give agita” in the New York parlance).

Today, marketing power is spent to reach consumers in many ways (cellular phones, Internet, print advertising, billboards…) to persuade them to tune in at particular times. Imagine, how many viewers a network loses this way because people are stuck in traffic or taking their mother-in-law’s Chihuahua to the vet!

Plus, when forcing viewers to tune in for “appointment television,” the networks not only have to fight for consumers’ attention, schedules and their limited time availability, but also compete against a dozen or more shows all transmitted at the same time. Wouldn’t it be better if the networks concentrated their energy inducing viewers to watch their shows when it’s convenient?

Networks have to start tackling this question pretty soon, first to work with advertisers in figuring out how best to take advantage of the new way to aggregate audiences and, second, to better compete in the marketplace.

Also to take into consideration is the fact that TV networks, in addition to competing with each other are now going against computers, videogames and social networking, and will soon begin to compete with program aggregators and content providers –– those who will sell programs directly to the public.