Will an on-demand world, in which viewers can watch what they want when they want, drive schedulers to therapy?
Television executives say traditional network schedules will remain the dominant programming paradigm for some time. But HBO’s series “In Treatment” may provide a look into the future.
The critically acclaimed series starring Gabriel Byrne averaged 2 million viewers per episode.
The wrinkle: HBO says only 12% of them saw episodes in the weeknight prime-time slots in which they made their debuts.
HBO airs its shows multiple times, on its main network and its multiplex channels. Most of the people who watched “In Treatment”—68%, in fact—watched it during a subsequent airing.
Another 9% saw it on digital video recorders. Another 7% watched the show on HBO On-Demand through their cable operators and another 4% saw the show through a digital provider, including HBO.com, iTunes, Amazon Unbox or an affiliated Web Site.
Subscribers will be able to watch more shows online as HBO for Broadband rolls out.
“We create programs that we think people want to watch, and then we let them watch where and when and how they want,” said Dave Baldwin, executive VP of program planning at HBO. “If I were scheduling one of the major networks, contemplating the changes in platforms and technology, I would look to get my resume in order and try to get out of there.”
Not so fast, say other network schedulers.
“The majority of people still watch television the old-fashioned way,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research at Fox. “That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that way. But I believe that in the short run, or as long as I have to worry about it, which is another three or four years, what I do I have to do the way I’ve always done it.”
Since ABC made a deal to put its shows on iTunes in 2005, the number of ways viewers can watch has exploded. While the vast majority of viewers still watch their shows on television, ABC said it has streamed 300 million episodes of its shows on ABC.com since September 2006. Streams are up 147% this year through March. Shows also are available via VOD, Xbox and mobile services.
“We want people to watch, period,” said Wendell Foster, vice president of multiplatform, program planning and scheduling for ABC Entertainment. “We’ve gone from one place to watch television to a seemingly endless number of places to watch television. And it really seemed to happen within the last 12 to 18 months.”
So far, Mr. Foster said, he has seen no signs the new distribution platforms are cannibalizing the network’s business.
“My sense is that when you aggregate all of these, I think we’re right where we want to be. Everybody who wants to see our shows has the opportunity,” he said.
In a programming experiment that moves against the trend of making shows available everywhere, all the time, The CW this month decided to hold back its hit show “Gossip Girl” from the Web, forcing viewers to tune in on TV or record the show with a DVR or VCR.
Ratings for “Gossip Girl” have risen during the first two weeks of the five-week test. But CW executives say it’s too soon to figure out whether the rise is attributable to a change in scheduling, increased marketing support or the Internet blackout. The program is still available for purchase on iTunes.
Before the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike, which began in November, the last two episodes of “Gossip Girl” had 2.2 million viewers, and the show was averaging more than 100,000 streams from The CW Web site. In the show’s first two weeks back on the TV schedule, “Gossip Girl” attracted 2.5 million viewers, then 2.53 million.
“The goal for us is to get people to the TV set,” a CW spokesman said.
Mr. Baldwin acknowledges that HBO’s situation is different from most networks because it isn’t ad-supported. Broadcast shows face a different kind of challenge than premium TV services like HBO, attempting to get a mass audience in one shot for sponsors. It’s a job that is becoming more and more difficult.
Those advertisers don’t only want to reach viewers with DVRs or access to video-on-demand.
“Yes, schedules matter,” said Shari Anne Brill, VP for programming at media buyer Carat. “It matters to the 76% of the world that doesn’t have a DVR. You’re still wedded to when the telecast gets fed.”
Delayed ‘Geek’ Viewing
Still, there are 14 prime-time shows, headed by “Beauty and the Geek,” “Lost” and “Big Brother,” which have more than 20% of their viewing done on a delayed basis using DVRs, according to Nielsen.
That means a network like Sci Fi Channel, whose viewership is rich in tech-savvy early adopters, needs to adopt DVR-friendly approaches to scheduling.
“A lot of people in the industry talk about the DVR as their enemy. You can’t think about the future and future technologies as the enemy. You’re not going to be able to smite it. The DVR is here to stay,” said Thomas Vitale, senior VP for programming and original movies at Sci Fi.
Early on, Sci Fi switched from stripping shows across the week to stacking episodes of the same show or similar shows each night to create programming events that might make for appointment viewing.
“People organize their lives around what they do different nights, as opposed to, ‘Every night at 9 I do this,’” Mr. Vitale said.
With schedules that are simple to remember, such as originals on Friday or reality shows on Wednesday, viewers are less likely to use a DVR to organize their viewing.
DVR use has helped Sci Fi. With the new C3 ratings system measuring commercial watching during an original broadcast plus three days of delayed viewing, Sci Fi picks up viewers. And the data shows Sci Fi viewers tend to watch commercials during playback, Mr. Vitale said.
Viewers also use DVRs to keep up with serialized shows.
“That’s another way the DVR is our friend,” Mr. Vitale said. “People can get more engaged with our shows.”
It is still better to be viewed live, so being the No. 1 show in a time slot live is important. That’s the case even if you have the same number of viewers when all the time-shifted viewing is counted, because viewers who watch live are much more likely to watch the commercials.
“You want your show to be the first choice because you increase the chances of its value in terms of the currency,” Mr. Beckman said.
In the old days, Nielsen treated viewership of a taped show on a VCR the same as live viewing. But even then, there was no substitute for a real-time audience.
‘Seinfeld’ vs. ‘Years’
When Mr. Beckman worked at NBC, he was involved in moving “Seinfeld” opposite ABC’s “The Wonder Years.” A friend was upset because those were two of his favorite shows. Mr. Beckman was pleased, however, because the friend planned to watch “Seinfeld” and tape “Wonder Years.”
“Probably, you’ll stop watching ‘Wonder Years’ because you won’t get around to viewing it,” Mr. Beckman told his friend. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the friend said he’d even stopped taping the show.
One challenge created by an on-demand world of delayed TV viewing is drawing attention to other shows in a network’s lineup. Even if promos for other programs aren’t skipped, the shows they’re pitching may already have aired, Mr. Beckman said.
For the TV networks, the big benefit of having shows available online and on-demand is that they give viewers a chance to keep up with shows they want to watch but may not be home to see.
“What a lot of these new platforms do is get people back to the set,” Mr. Beckman said. Fox’s research found that the No. 1 reason people come to network Web sites is to catch up on a show.
“They’re going back to watching it live or they want to find out when the next live episode is. So the primary use of network Web sites is really almost like a TV Guide,” he said.
When will scheduling no longer be an important part of the TV business?
“Magazines and books are littered with people who predict the future and say it will never happen,” said Mr. Vitale. “I’m not sure.”
|Most Time-Shifted Programs|
|Rank||Program||Network||Date and Time||Persons 2+, Live (000)||Persons 2+, Live +7 Day (000)||Percent Increase|
|1||Beauty and the Geek||The CW||Tuesdays, 8 p.m.||1,577||2,017||27.9|
|2||Lost||ABC||Thursdays, 9 p.m.||10,468||13,334||27.4|
|3||Big Brother 9||CBS||Wednesdays, 8 p.m.||4,833||6,131||26.9|
|4||America’s Next Top Model||The CW||Wednesdays, 8 p.m.||3,169||3,972||25.4|
|5||One Tree Hill||The CW||Tuesdays, 9 p.m.||2,702||3,327||23.1|
|6||Big Brother 9||CBS||Tuesdays, 9 p.m.||5,315||6,538||23|
|7||Friday Night Lights||NBC||Fridays, 9 p.m.||4,976||6,078||22.1|
|8||Jericho||CBS||Tuesdays, 10 p.m.||5,826||7,089||21.7|
|9||Las Vegas||NBC||Fridays, 10 p.m.||6,805||8,260||21.4|
|10||30 Rock||NBC||Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.||5,303||6,427||21.2|
|Shows are ranked in order of greatest gain from live to
live-plus-seven-day viewing. Data covers the year to date, from Dec. 31,
2007, to April 13, 2008. Excludes specials.
|Source: Nielsen Co.|