Last Friday, Netflix released their second attempt at original programming, a remake of British mini-series House of Cards. While it’s interesting that Netflix is persuing original content in the first place, what is most notable about House of Cards is the way it was released. Unlike most shows, which are relased on a weekly basis, all thirteen episdoes of House of Cards were made available at once, allowing viewers the option of marathoning the season in just a few days or spacing it out more like traditional teleivison models.
In the past few weeks, dozens of articles have been written about what this means for the future of television. There is no doubt that the way we watch television has changed in recent years. I’ve touched on this idea in a previous post, but I want to expand on the idea a little further and talk the way that Netflix and online streaming have revolutioned the act of watching television, even if the industry hasn’t quite hit its own revolution yet.
Complaints about the Nielsen ratings system are not new but until the television industry changes the way things are financed, it’s likely one we’ll be stuck with for a while. Since TV is driven by advertising, networks need a way to know who is watching their programs so they can then sell commercial space during those programs to companies who wish to reach that particular audience. This is where Nielsen ratings (particularly the number of people watching who are between the ages of 18 and 49) come in.
Before the days of online streaming, this system worked fairly well. There will always be complaints about whether or not the sample population is truly representative of the population of the whole country, but assuming that Nielsen is truly interested in getting a cross-section of viewers, in lieu of asking everyone in the country what programs (including commercials) they are watching, it is statistically valid.
However, now that online streaming has become so popular, especially with people in the lower range of the coveted 18-49 age bracket, Nielsen ratings seem to be inadequte in truly capturing the total audience of a show. Networks that stream their shows or allow them to be viewed through Hulu or other similar sites can get a little better look at the audience for their shows, but not with the same sort of data that Nielsen provides.
In addition to the loss of viewers who watch a show and its commercials live, sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime have made it easier and more affordable for us to catch up on older seasons of shows we didn’t see the first time around. While these sites do still made a network money, as content needs to be licensed, but I don’t think it is as much as would be made if people had watched the show live. They have, however, changed the way we want to watch TV. People have found that they prefer to marathon a show over a few days or weeks rather than have to wait between episodes. This phenomena is by no means new, as I know people who would wait to buy the DVDs of Lost between seasons so they could watch them all at once, but the affordability of Netflix vs. DVD purchases has made this behavior more common place.
Webseries have also become increasingly popular. While they don’t have the same profit potential as network shows, they also don’t have the same interference that a network show would typically receive. They allow showrunners to tell the story they want to tell in the way they want to tell it. For viewers, they offer entertainment for free, which also helps shift our thinking about entertainment. I imagine this impacts cable networks more than broadcast networks, but the expectation that we shouldn’t have to pay a lot of money for our entertainment seems to be coming more common.
The increasing availability of online streaming has created an increasing significant portion of television viewers who want their entertainment whenever it is most convenient for them, delivered all at once so it can be consumed in marathons, ideally commercial free, all for as little cost as possible. This is obviously incompatible with the way network television runs today as it doesn’t offer nearly the same potential to make money. It’s not an immediate problem. There are still enough people who watch TV live to make it worthwhile, but unless something changes, it will be a problem in the future. The industry isn’t quite ready to change yet, but I think it will be interesting to watch as they do.