Slowly but surely, power is ebbing away from the mighty media barons

'The paradox is that the more TV does, the less useful it is as a medium for reaching people'
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The Independent Online

So the Olympics were a wild success in every way but one. The hosts were competent, stylish and ungreedy; we did very well and have a base from which to do even better; even the chemical substances seem to have been held in better check than on previous occasions.

So the Olympics were a wild success in every way but one. The hosts were competent, stylish and ungreedy; we did very well and have a base from which to do even better; even the chemical substances seem to have been held in better check than on previous occasions.

The exception? In the world's biggest TV market, the US, they were a viewing disaster. In fact the figures were down 36 per cent on Atlanta and the worst for any Olympics, summer or winter, since the Mexico games in 1968. NBC, the US television network that bought the rights to show the games until 2008, is under fire and the advertisers are understandably less than thrilled. Since the Olympics is the world's largest TV event - the only product that reaches virtually every nation on earth - this failure carries a powerful message for the future.

Part of the explanation for the poor US figures lies in the time-zone effect - that while the games were actually taking place, the US was asleep. Part lies in the way NBC tried to compensate for that, by taping the races, adding all sorts of flashy editing and then showing the resulting concoction 18 hours later. But part lies in the declining influence of mainstream TV, that even a show of the clout of the Olympics cannot fully offset. Welcome to the post-TV age.

OK, it is premature to say that. Mainstream television will continue to be an extremely important part of our lives for the half-century, just as it has for the past one. But all technologies go into decline eventually, and television is just beginning its inexorable slide. If you wanted to choose a moment when the slide began, this is as good as any. Three things are happening that will drive this change: the shift to digital; competition from next-generation internet; and the next-generation-but-one mobile telephone.

First, a paradox: the more television does, the less useful it is as a medium for reaching people. Television is poised for the greatest change in its history, the shift to digital, with all the possibilities this change encompasses. We will be able to watch a thousand channels, shop, run our bank accounts, run our businesses even - if that is indeed what we want to do - from the box. But the more channels there are, the less time we have to watch any particular one; the more we use the television to do things, the less we will use it to watch things; and if we are not watching it, then we are not seeing the adverts.

This trend will be given a new twist by the arrival of digital recording systems, like the TiVo. At the moment we can record programmes (if we can manage to work the video) but we cannot do anything with the recording. The new digital ones not only are much easier to operate, but they enable you to fiddle about with the signal. You can, for example, snip out the ads. So as my colleague Charles Arthur reported last Monday, this is good news for viewers but bad for the TV companies.

Apply this to the debate about which and what news should be at ten o'clock. In five years' time no one will care what news is at ten, because news will be when you want it. You will come home or finish your supper, flick on a switch and watch whatever is the latest news at the time of your choice, just as you can, in theory, do at the moment with the internet.

The second change is, of course, the internet itself. Already, once a home goes on-line, TV viewing goes down. But the internet is still in its infancy. Imagine TV-quality images on the computer. Imagine all the creativity and financial might of the world's big companies devoted to figuring out ways to get us to download their signals onto our computers and to buy something from them as a result. The more that companies can reach us as individuals through the Net, the less they will try to reach us as a group through television.

Now stir in the mobile revolution. At the moment we are working out how to use WAP phones - or rather how not to use them, for they are evidently a flop. The phone companies are seeking to learn the lessons and create more imaginative uses for the third-generation mobile phones, for which they have just paid megabucks for the licences. These phones will have enough bandwidth to carry a TV-quality signal. But nothing stops. In another ten years, the fourth generation of mobile phones will start being rolled out with vastly more capacity.

We cannot hope to envisage how that capacity will be used, just as ten years ago the internet revolution was unthinkable. What we know is that as the competence of mobile telephony rises, mobile telephonic devices (OK, super-phones) will compete more and more for our time. More time on the phone is less time watching the box.

The result will be that TV will gradually play a much less important part in our lives. What is on the box will stop being a talking point, a shared experience. But the content itself will still be a shared experience. The Olympics is too strong a brand to wither away. It is a brand that has been enhanced by the medium of television. But in another ten years' time, how and when we access that content will be our choice: we may choose to use the technology of television, just as readers of this newspaper chose to use the technology of the rotary press to read people like Clive James writing about the Olympics. But we may not. Television will just be one way of watching the event.

For anyone who cares about democracy of information - that people should be able to watch what they want, whenever they want, rather than be force-fed by a handful of TV programmers - this is wonderful. If advertisers have to work harder at reaching us as individuals instead of just running cutesy ads on the box, that is wonderful too. If politicians have to listen to people's views and craft their products to match, rather than rely on TV coverage of their tedious conferences, then I'll cheer for that as well.

The big message here is that we are in the very early stages of a gigantic shift in power. If even the Olympics, the world's biggest TV event, commands the lowest audience for a generation in its largest market, then power is moving away from the great media barons. And you know where that power is going? It is going to the people who create the content, like the great sports people we have been celebrating. And it is going to the people who enjoy that content and want to make choices about how we experience it - us.