Saturday 20 April 2019

Online revolution has TV networks scrambling to keep us watching

Joe O'Shea

How do you take your TV? Do you binge-watch, snack or bundle? Have you recently stayed up, bleary-eyed, until the dawn to watch "just one more episode" or do you have the discipline to ration your favourite shows?

The success, and social-media buzz, around Orange Is The New Black, the Netflix-only drama set in a US women's prison, has highlighted the sudden revolution in the way we watch TV.

And it is causing major soul-searching at the established networks, who are scrambling to adapt to the radical changes in consumer habits.

What was, up until very recently, a very straight-forward model – the shows were made, scheduled and either found an audience over 12 or so weeks or did not – has now become a complicated, multi-platform, digital whirlpool.

Traditional networks and their advertisers fear they will be soon struggling to keep up, or find the kind of viewer numbers needed to sustain the established model for making and broadcasting TV.

Even as recently as a few years ago, Irish and British fans of major dramas such as The Sopranos or Mad Men might have to wait months, maybe up to a year, for the latest season to make its way here.

However, when the final episodes of acclaimed US drama Breaking Bad hit Ireland and the UK, starting on video-streaming service Netflix only on Monday night, we will be seeing them just hours after fans in the US.

It will be a new way of viewing TV. Many thousands of Irish Breaking Bad fans will be poised, ready to click on their laptops, internet-connected TVs or iPads.

And when the opening episode is over, they will be straight on to Twitter or other social media to discuss what just went down in Albuquerque. (Some will tweet and watch simultaneously.)

Vince Gilligan, creator of the multi-award-winning drama about a school teacher turned drug dealer, recognises the role played by Netflix in breaking his show to a worldwide audience.

"Netflix has been instrumental in making Breaking Bad the success that it is – particularly in the UK and Ireland, where it has built an audience and become a huge phenomenon," said Gilligan.

What Gilligan and the people at Netflix and Sony Pictures Television did not say was that rolling out the most eagerly anticipated drama of 2013 simultaneously in all major markets will stymie the pirates and the millions of torrent-site users who are not prepared to wait (and pay) to see their favourite show.

At the moment, it is hard to write about the radical changes hitting the TV industry without it coming off as an extended PR piece for video-streaming services such as Hulu, Amazon Prime and the market-leader Netflix.

However, it is no exaggeration to say these multi-billion dollar companies are changing the game in ways that could hardly have been anticipated, even three or four years ago.

Netflix has started spending millions of dollars on commissioning its own content – the company recently bank-rolled the Kevin Spacey political drama House of Cards and a new season of the cult TV comedy Arrested Development.

House Of Cards alone had a $100m (€74m) budget, an A-list star and was nominated in July for nine Emmys – making history as the first online-only TV drama to be nominated for the prestigious awards.

It was a seismic moment for the main broadcast networks. To make a simple analogy, imagine if a video-rental chain like Blockbuster had announced, in 1992, that they would be making and financing the next Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis. It would only be available through video stores. And go on to win four Oscar nominations without hitting a single cinema.

TV on-demand is also changing the way we watch TV with 'binge-watching' the latest buzzword to hit the industry.

On-demand binging is when viewers decide to set aside an entire Saturday night or Sunday afternoon to watching multiple episodes of their favourite TV shows online.

It started with the advent of the DVD box-set and the phenomenal success of 24 in the mid-noughties. Such was the frenetic pace and addictive, cliff-hanger nature of Jack Bauer's adventures in spying, viewers were not prepared to wait a week to get the next instalment.

Video-streaming has now created a generation of TV binge-eaters, fans of shows like Breaking Bad or Orange is the New Black who can find the time to watch six episodes in a row or entire seasons over one, red-eyed weekend.

Some on-demand customers 'bundle' – setting aside a couple of hours on a week night to watching, say, one episode of a comedy such as Modern Family and then one or two episodes of a drama – while others snack, taking a half-hour comedy here, a movie there.

One of the (many) problems these new habits create for networks and advertisers is that they can no longer say when, or even if, the family TV is turned on. It may only be for prime-time mega-shows such as The X-Factor.

Traditional, multi-week dramas such as RTÉ's hit series Love/Hate can still find a huge audience here at home. But, for how much longer will younger viewers, in particular, be prepared to wait seven days to find out what Nidge did next?

The challenge for network bosses and ad agencies is to find a way to keep us watching "traditional" TV, while still making enough money to keep the lights on.

Irish Independent

Top Stories

Most Read

Independent Gallery

Your photos

Send us your weather photos promo

Celebrity News