PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) – Unless you really want to get into a show that no one's watching, feel free to sit out the earliest parts of the fall television season.
The marketing and hype behind television's fall premiere season would lead you to believe that catching television shows just as they hatch is vitally important to networks, the shows themselves and the entire television viewing experience. As viewers have shifted their watching schedules with the help of DVRs and binge-watched streaming video services, however, networks have learned to be slightly more patient before giving new programs the hook.
A survey released last year by Harris Interactive discovered that 78% of Americans have watched TV “on [their] own schedule,” and 62% of those have binge-watched multiple episodes of a TV show at a time. Of that audience, 41% of Americans have watched TV on demand through a cable provider (34%) or a satellite provider (9%). Another 40% use Hulu Plus, Netflix or Amazon to do the same, while 37% take to their Tivo, DVR or other recording device to watch television when they feel like it.
That's creating a fundamental shift in not only how shows are aired, but how networks and advertisers approach the television season. On the surface, it's ugly. Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne last year published a report indicating that, since 2002, the average Nielsen rating for broadcast television among viewer 18-49 collapsed from 15 to roughly 7 in 2011. At the same time, average advertising revenue for those broadcasts decreased only 6% to 7%, as networks still held on to a larger single audience than any other alternative.
It's also becoming clear that the companies behind those networks -- 20th Century Fox, Comcast, Disney and, to a lesser extent, CBS — are relying on subscription fees as a growing portion of their overall revenue while minimizing the risk of fluctuating ad dollars. By 2011, the split between ad revenue and subscription revenue among television companies was roughly 60% to 40%, with Swinburne estimating that combined revenues would climb from $95 billion in 2012 to $115 billion by 2015.
That's changing the television landscape from a seasonal business to a year-round affair: An endless loop of fresh content that viewers can access at just about any time. When broadcast networks would cancel shows including Family Guy and Futurama, cable would sweep in, revive them and make them commercially viable again. Now, when broadcast and cable networks cancel shows such as Arrested Development, Community or The Killing, online streaming services including Netflix and Yahoo! Screen swoop in to pick them up.
As it turns out, viewers — especially young viewers — really like watching television on their own terms. Nielsen discovered back in 2012 that time-shifted viewing using Tivo, DVRs and on-demand services rose from just five hours of average monthly viewing in 2007 to 11 hours by the end of 2011. Online viewing, meanwhile, rose from little less than two hours per month in 2006 to nearly 7 hours by 2012.
Partnering with Harris Interactive, Netflix conducted an online survey in the U.S. in November and found that 73% of viewers consider binge watching “watching between [two and six] episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.” Of those same viewers, 61% of the people survey said they binge watch regularly. A full 73% of those binge watchers feel pretty good about watching television that way, though most viewers consume an average of only 2.3 episodes per sitting.
Why do they do so? Well, 76% just like the fact that watching a few episodes at a time limits distraction while also distracting them from the outside world. With that kind of time to mull shows over, 79% say binge watching makes a show seem better than when it's presented in its regularly scheduled, commercial-chopped format.
The problem for networks is that binge watchers are especially cautious when approaching new shows. The Netflix/Harris survey found that just 37% of viewers would give a new show a shot — but even then would bury it in their queue for a while as they watch other shows they're more familiar with.
That may be a big part of the reason networks have been giving their shows a longer leash of late. Of the more than 50 shows canceled by NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and The CW during the 2013-14 season, only five were pulled before the end of fall. More than 40 made it to April. The good news it that they're usually rewarded for their patience. A poll conducted by Harris and Comcast discovered that 55% of binge watchers favor new television content, with 82% of those viewers watching two or more episodes at a clip to catch up to the live broadcast.
Considering what the networks' competition looks like these days, a little patience isn't too much to ask. When Netflix releases seasons of original programming including Orange Is The New Black, House Of Cards, Hemlock Grove and Lilyhammer, it releases full seasons at a time and leaves it to viewers to judge the entire season on its merits. With Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Yahoo! Screen and even AOL taking a similar approach, the idea of canceling a season before all of its episodes air seems not only quaint, but frivolous. Why wouldn't you wring every dollar out of that content you're paying so dearly for?
Besides, didn't Netflix just get 31 nominations for this year's Primetime Emmys for shows it aired in their entirety? Wasn't that more nominations than Fox (30), which not only saw fit to cancel more than a dozen shows last season, but outright refused to air the animated sitcom Murder Police despite producing multiple episodes?
Yes, fall premiere season is here and everybody in television is pushing hard to sell it. But viewers with better things to do and little patience for slow-burning new shows can sit back, get comfortable and wait until they hear good things about a program before taking it all in. Record it on your DVR or Tivo or wait until episodes hit Hulu Plus: The networks are learning that you'll watch these shows whenever you're good and ready.
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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