Television is dead! Long live Television!
The Golden Globes were announced today, and quite predictably, HBO, AMC, and Netflix beat the big three broadcast networks in nominations, again.
It's funny to me that the entertainment press is consistently shocked by the fact that subscription television (premium cable and streaming) is trumping "stalwart" established networks ( Fox/CBS/NBC/ABC ).
The following quote is telling:
"The true measure for Netflix will be if they can sustain the initial success with additional programs and also if they can show what kind of impact their shows have had beyond critics; you can't find out how many people watched "House of Cards" like you can know how many people see "Scandal" each week, for example..."
This quote is interesting for several reasons. The first is the assumption that Netflix needs to show the success of their shows beyond critics (they don't, more on that in a bit), the second is that Netflix needs to measure their success, publicly and transparently, via a neutral 3rd party, using a 64 year old ratings system the same way that the networks do (again, nope.).
Finally, and most astonishingly, the quote represents the kind of rare hubris reserved for once dominant industries, failing politicians (and the press that covers them) in the midst of a catastrophic disruption. This isn't a fight the networks can win, it won't even be close, it will be a slaughter.
Bringing a slide rule to a data fight
One of the key differences between the streaming companies and the big networks is how they use the data.
Netflix absolutely knows (and with substantially more precision) how many users are watching a given series. Netflix (and my employer, Amazon*) know a lot more about their audience, their tastes and their viewing habits than the "real" TV networks.
Netflix and Amazon even ask their users to provide feedback on the shows they watch through user ratings and reviews. In Amazon's case, we've even go so far as crowd-sourced voting for which original series get funded for production.
On the other hand, the big networks still rely on an antiquated system of advertiser "up-fonts", sweeps and a laughably out-dated Nielsen rating system for business intelligence on which shows to fund, retain or kill - regardless of quality, or engagement with a fan base.
To be fair, the system reflects the legacy technology of an over-the-air broadcast system, which was constrained by a zero-sum-game of time slots, bandwidth, and a business model at the mercy of the tender sensitivities of advertisers and government regulators.
Netflix (and to a lesser degree, premium cable) doesn't care about advertising. Ratings (and the attentive eyeballs they imply) only matter when you're trying to convince people to buy stuff they don't really need in between act 1 and act 2 of Glee or Dancing With The Stars.
Quality and Quantity
Another fatal flaw in the ad-driven network system is time slots.
Time slots are an artifact of an era where users had their programming choices constrained to three networks.
The audience size for these networks in those days (tens of millions of viewers reliably watching from one time slot to another) was a cash bonanza in advertising dollars. One or two mega hit shows could reliably fund the rest of the network schedule .
The massive proliferation of channels in cable over the last two decades expanded the programming choices without expanding user's time to watch (TiVo and DVR solve a symptom not the whole problem).
Predictably, more choices led to a shrinking audiences, ad revenue and a race to the bottom for programming quality. The networks have effectively cannibalized their own business model.
Unlike the Networks, where ratings set the value of advertising slots for a given hour of television, and drive programming decisions, streaming companies use their more granular data to inform intelligent decisions about the types of content they license or content they develop.
More importantly , Netflix and Amazon use that data to individually micro-target programming for a specific household, on-demand. There are no time slots. That level of targeting can effectively ensure users discover relevant content, at their own pace, which forms a bedrock media habit.
Success for a subscription service isn't measured in market share for advertising, its measured in monthly subscription renewals and new subscribers. If only 10 million subscribers watching a single series on a monthly basis, that's 80 million in revenue, every month if those 10 million subscribers stick around to the next billing cycle (Game of Thrones anyone?).
If a service has a few award-winning, high production value series, which keeps customers reliably engaged, and a deep catalog of relevant "good enough" content to keep them watching in between "season binges", customers begin to look at the monthly cable bill with an increasingly critical eye.
I predict the death knell for network and cable television (as we know it today) will happen right around the time the top two or three premium cable channels give up on being "channels", focus on content development, and throw their lot in with one or more of the major streaming providers.
In the premium/subscription world, all that matters is engagement (using features that tell us more about what you like), habituation (watch every day), and subscriber retention (keep paying the monthly bill). It really doesn't matter (much) how many viewers a series has, it only matters that subscribers keep subscribing.
The new golden age of television
What we're witnessing here isn't the death of television, its the death of a business model. Great content will always sell.
I think streaming will liberate the powerful storytelling tool that has always lurked beneath the surface of television (and occasionally pokes its head out every half decade).
Television storytelling has been perceived as more superficial (compared to film) for most of its history mainly because the financial incentives to make it better haven't existed. When your livelihood is easily threatened by advertiser boycotts and shrinking market share, Its difficult to tell compelling, transformative stories to an audience of millions. Quality looses when it's easier and more bankable to churn out another 'Real Housewives' schaden-fest and call it a day.
Episodic storytelling becomes a lot more interesting when you remove the constraints of a specific time frame. "30 minute" TV episodes only contain 22 minutes of content. That is a financial formula. Those 8 minutes of commercials are the reason the other 22 minutes exist.
What happens when you can make an episode length variable like a podcast? What happens when a series has 23 episodes in a season (instead of 13, which fits in a Sweeps schedule) , all of various lengths? Think of all the un-explored loose threads, plot holes, and cheap shortcuts used in TV storytelling today, they exist because the length of the content is predetermined. The story needs to be 22 minutes long; no more, no less. The audience is left hanging or suffers through hack writing because a better story isn't easily fit in a 22 minute story arc.
Direct to streaming series don't have to worry about advertising. Writers can experiment with longer, more nuanced and involved stories. Writing can be less formulaic, and can explore new show formats, and interactive features because the programming is streamed through purpose-built software and hardware such as smart TVs and set top boxes.
Most of all, since the success of the streaming companies relies on customer engagement and habit, these companies must remain customer-obsessed. The company that looses touch with their subscriber's tastes will not survive.
Streaming levels the playing field for storytellers. The tools for producing high-quality content have never been lower and the only real barriers to entry for content production is time and talent.
The talent is out there, it's just chained to an editing suite in the bowels of an ad agency pumping out another car commercial no one cares about.
The future of TV is bright, its just smaller, habituated, more focused, and higher quality. The Revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
* I work for Audible.com, Amazon's Audiobook subsidiary. We have a monthly subscription model. I do not work for Amazon's Video streaming service and have no visibility into the metrics they collect or how they measure their audience. My opinions in this blog post are my own, and are not a reflection of my employer, Amazon.