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How Will TV Survive Its Own Reality Show?

To thrive in the Internet Age, the industry must remake itself.

The television world used to be so simple. When onetime suspender salesman Ralph Roberts started what would become cable giant Comcast Corp. 41 years ago in Tupelo, Miss., it was a just matter of stringing up wires. Surely folks would come to him, eager to get crystal-clear signals from the Big Three -- CBS, NBC, and ABC. But for CEO Brian Roberts, who has taken over from his father, competition is everywhere today, from satellites to phone companies. More than rivals, though, the biggest challenge for Roberts and every media executive is something bigger: consumers empowered as never before.

In fact, TV is confronting the biggest turning point in its more than 60-year history. The most profound change under way is one of technological upheaval. Digitization and high-speed data lines are giving viewers unprecedented control over what they view and when they view it. That's because programming has become less and less tethered to a particular device, threatening the extinction of the old square box. It also means that prime time will certainly evaporate, so that new revenue models will come to replace the traditional 30-second spot ad as the lifeblood of the industry. "The world is going to change whether we like it or not," says David Westin, president of ABC News (DIS ), which in July began delivering the new 24-hour ABC News Now service to cell phones and the Internet. Phones and a computer? How would legendary CBS founder William S. Paley get his head around that idea?