"The model the networks come up with for distribution is going to affect everybody because everyone consumes TV in some way," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.
That new business model is still very much a work in progress. If network television is to continue to provide big-budget productions to viewers without charge, it must attract enough eyeballs to draw advertisers. Increasingly, though, competition is coming from other forms of online entertainment.
In the networks' favor: A great TV show can still trounce amateurish YouTube video for sheer entertainment value.
"I've been hearing about the death of television for nearly 35 years," says David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS. He points out that the five networks still command over 50 percent of the viewing audience for television. While viewers may be consuming their favorite TV shows outside the standard broadcast prime-time slot – think cellphones, iPods, websites, digital video recorders, and DVDs – they still find out about the show from the prime-time schedule. This creation of the all-important "franchise" – the must-see stories that people will seek out regardless of the medium – is still what the networks do best.
The ability to deliver audiences that advertisers can measure is still key to the business model for distributing freely accessible content on the Internet. "Nobody else can come close to aggregating audiences the way the networks still can," says Marc Berman, TV analyst for New York-based trade publication, MediaWeek.