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Why Network Television is Just Getting Warmed Up

Click here for more on B&C's 80th Anniversary

On the remarkable occasion of Broadcasting & Cable’s 80th anniversary, I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the incredible lasting power of another institution in our industry: network television.

Those of us who have been doing this for a while have seen countless attempts to write the epitaph of broadcast television. The good news is that the prognosticators have been proven wrong. Even better, they’re not even arguing anymore.

I’ve been a champion of network TV for a long, long time, but even I am in awe of its resilience, and its ability to adapt and thrive under ever-changing circumstances.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at this incredible endurance in the face of change. After all, in spite of all attempts to winnow it down or niche it into tiny fragments, mass media reaching a mass audience remains the lifeblood of our culture. And when it comes to bringing together the largest audiences, network television remains the best game in town. It draws us together, garners the most attention, and delivers by far the most bang for an advertiser’s buck. And in an increasingly fractured environment, its value only grows.

A quick review of the many eulogies would show a number of technologies that were supposed to kill us. The VCR. Then cable, and DVD and, of course, the Internet.

None of this happened. Instead, we survive and flourish. Of course, new media develop all the time, new ways people can access our programming. But it turns out that no matter how mobile the platform, how smooth the wireless connection…none of it matters if you don’t have a hit to play on it.

And that’s where network television is king. Entertainment franchises like NCIS and American Idol bring in tens of millions of viewers every single week. We air the biggest sporting events in the world, including the Super Bowl and the Masters. And broadcast newscasts are watched by far more viewers than any other daily news format. This week, more than 22 million people watched the nightly news broadcasts. And ratings are up for all three.

People keep coming to television in droves because it’s populist media at its best. Facebook and Twitter are undeniable phenomena, but the topics that are under discussion in those venues are, still, to a large part, the stuff that was on network TV last night. That’s because we create community, however that community expresses itself.

The new ways that people are talking to each other also turn out to be a tremendous opportunity to grow our audience, adding to more traditional platforms like syndication and cable. And just in the past year, a whole new streaming business has brought powerful new players into the content distribution marketplace, and network programming is once again filling that pipeline for Amazon, Netflix, Hulu Plus and now Blockbuster.

Network television makes all of this possible. There is no first window in media quite like it.

But we’re more than a national phenomenon. Along with radio, our owned and affiliated TV stations are the best local medium in the business, serving our communities like no other. On any given day, television networks and their affiliate bodies offer the biggest-ticket entertainment, news and sports programming, as well as the most important local information that shapes their daily lives.

So large and small, nationally and locally, network TV brings the nation together through times of triumph and challenge. This combination has made broadcast television the most successful medium in history. Perhaps the real surprise to some, and the development that has only become clear quite recently, is that it’s the very technology that was supposed to lay us low that is, in fact, making this all possible. Because no matter the platform, people will always demand quality content. As Shakespeare said, “the play’s the thing.”

And so the question of “old media” versus “new media” is no longer valid. There is only media. Media that clicks with the world—and media that doesn’t.

And the epitaphs? If Mark Twain were here today, he’d no doubt be saying that the rumors of network television’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, to the contrary, we’re just getting warmed up.

Happy Birthday, B&C. Here’s to another 80 years covering the best game in town.

Leslie Moonves is president and chief executive officer of CBS Corp.