By Alex Haslam, CutCableToday.com
Network television had a pretty good run. For decades, TV producers perfected their formulas to maximize viewership through scheduled weekly episodes. Streaming services have permanently disrupted television’s model by dropping entire seasons at once, adding an entirely new dynamic to the game. There’s no turning back the clock; television as we know it is changing forever, and streaming services are taking the lead.
The History of the Serial
Delivering a narrative in “episodes” predates the invention of television. Charles Dickens’ novels were written as serials, offering readers an installment plan that spaced out the experience and the cost. The serial was wildly successful for generating an audience, but as print costs fell, the full-length novel rose back to prominence.
The first episodic television series were similar in many ways. Television stories delivered in short episodes drew in viewers week after week, capitalizing on certain time slots. TV’s dominance in entertainment hinged on capturing an audience’s attention for very brief periods in specific windows of time. This model favors shows like NCIS, which keep their plot arcs constrained to a one-hour time slot.
Streaming Changes the Game
Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu quickly gained popularity with viewers who want to watch TV on their own schedules. In 2013, Netflix began releasing original shows by the season, rather than the episode, setting a trend for other services. These shows are a brand new entity, called “originals” by both Amazon and Netflix. With this new format, audiences are no longer tied to seasonal, slow-drip, “appointment” television—today’s TV schedule is up to the consumer.
This new delivery model encourages new behaviors. Audiences are now binge-watching a single show in long viewing sessions, often on weekends or during holidays. Bingeing an entire season (or more) of a show in one long sitting predates streaming since DVRs and on-demand services offered more flexible scheduling for customers as early as the late 1990s. Streaming services are betting big on their audiences; Netflix plans to spend $8 billion in content production in 2018.
Releasing television shows by the season offers viewers a few distinct advantages over the traditional episodic model. Streaming allows audiences to sink deeper into a single story, encouraging commitment. "If you decide tomorrow you want to watch 'Breaking Bad,' you're going to spend the next two months watching all of 'Breaking Bad' before you move on to something else," said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s content chief, in an interview with Business Insider. The lack of interruption from scheduling or commercials engrosses the viewer in a series from start to finish with longer viewing sessions.
Working as Intended
The streaming model of television overturns a lot of paradigms. Seasons are usually released on Fridays, which TV networks consider “the death slot.” By filling in the gaps between typical network TV schedules, streaming is creating an experience akin to Hollywood releases. TV networks are struggling to even measure their audiences, let alone contend with the mass migration to streaming services.
Networks Take Notice
TV isn’t about to roll over and play dead, though. With billions in advertising revenue at stake, network television is already strategizing its triumphant return. Major networks like NBC now offer online streaming as part of their TV package, competing with dedicated streaming services in their own online territory.
Binge-watching has even found its way into traditional cable television. In 2016, TBS launched the first season of its new show Angie Tribeca in a 25-hour, commercial-free marathon, encouraging viewers to binge the show in its entirety.
Networks are also reconsidering traditional means of advertising, working products and sponsors into the shows themselves. The competitive environment and the rise of streaming are driving networks to innovate, or risk becoming obsolete.
The Death of Traditional TV
Will streaming services spell the end of the traditional TV network? It’s hard to tell. Unlike networks, Netflix is not obliged to release any viewership data, so there’s no way to compare the performance of Netflix series to traditional TV. Not even a Netflix original’s producers are privy to the number of viewers their shows get.
There is data that suggests new audience dynamics: 55% of millennials watch TV shows after they originally air, and almost as many partake in binge-watching sessions. Whether these changing demographics are affecting network TV’s audience numbers is uncertain at best, but the death of Blockbuster seems mildly prophetic.
The Future of Streaming
The rise of streaming is producing a new entertainment niche called cord cutting. With so many programs available on demand, more and more people are abandoning traditional cable and satellite networks for streaming-powered entertainment libraries. Cord cutters are already redefining the television experience and driving the production of hundreds of new streaming-only programs. It’s hard to underestimate the effect Netflix alone will have on television’s future with over 100 million subscribers. The TV marathon is dead—long live the binge session!