Commercial Television vs Streaming – The Battle for Viewership

There are a number of axioms in life: the Sun will always rise in the East, 2+2=4, George Lucas fucked up the prequels (ok…that one might be more of a dig than an axiom…). Another is what is on top now will not always be so.

Societies rise and fall. Alexander the Great brought Greeks to the height of power. The British Empire spanned six continents.

In recent times as the world has become more interconnected the rising and falling has more to do with corporations than countries. Technology has boomed in the last half thirty-five years and with it companies have risen and fallen because they failed to see the future. Take for example Blockbuster; some would say it was hubris that caused them to ignore the growth of Netflix into their market-share and eventually running them out of business in the United States. Others would argue that the behemoth which had amassed over 9,000 stores at its peak was simply too large to shift. It couldn’t suddenly become nimble. Streaming wasn’t really a thing yet when Netflix started killing it in 2009/2010 and how do you compete with better prices and the ability to sit on your ass and get something delivered to you?

Today we are on the cusp of another great shift in how we consume our at-home visual product and the rise of Netflix and its ability to be nimble has inspired others (Hulu, Amazon, HBO) to do the same or expand on things they were already doing to a massive degree.

Netflix started producing original programming in 2012 (mostly comedy specials and documentaries) and in early 2013 launched its first full-length series: House of Cards and the term “Binge Watching” was born. Now, instead of having to languish through weeks and months of waiting to see what would happen to your beloved characters – all you had to do was carve out enough time to watch the next episode(s). This concept is amazing and people instantly took to it. House of Cards was an excellent foray into the full-season viewing as it had all the trademark components to draw in and keep an audience: character appeal (the leading characters are well known actors), intrigue (lots of moving parts and plot that keeps the audience guessing) and sex (lots). And because its streaming entertainment curse words aplenty – to go along with the sex.

Not long after Netflix was launching more and more shows as the provider made missteps (trying to separate DVD and Streaming) they maintained their control of the market because they offered quality programming, good plan options at decent prices and now to go along with their original programming any number of commercial television shows, both new and old, are available to stream seasons at a time via the paid service.

Here is where we reach our talking point: paid service steaming versus commercial television.

Networks like ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX sell time during the airing of their various programs to advertisers who want to sell product. This advertising money makes up a significant portion of the revenue generated by these organizations. Television companies, much like Hollywood studios, are all part of one big conglomeration of corporate entities. NBC is owned by Comcast (which is fucking scary), ABC is owned by Disney, CBS is a Viacom company, and FOX is owned by some crazy old man. Because the television entity is simply one part of a massive organization the value of what is put on the air is the value it will bring in advertising and not necessarily the quality of the program itself.

Admittedly, every company, including those streaming providers, are in this game to make money there is no denying that; but since the programming is not built around trying to sell air time to marketing departments of other corporations they can focus on making quality programming – at least at Amazon and Netflix (both independently owned) and we all know what happened to Hulu once Disney bought it…

Since House of Cards Netflix, and by extension Amazon, have stepped up their game. Netflix has partnered with Marvel and has a series of shows coming out. This started with Daredevil which launched in early 2015 followed by the recently released Jessica Jones series. To follow will be Iron Fist and Luke Cage. You may be asking yourself why you’ve never even heard of these characters other than Daredevil; and there are a number of theories as to why wandering around the Internet. I tend to lean towards the reality that these characters met a certain criteria: A) potentially popular but not huge names at Marvel, B) each is a minority character (Blind, Woman, Black), C) none of these characters had movies in the works so having series revolving around their exploits would not hinder any potential movie plot points.

Amazon has done a number of original programming series which have been successful – Orphan Black in particular. And HBO has continued – since the days of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos to Game of Thrones being now the most anticipated show in the world (Season 6 in April Bitches! – Fuck…April is far away) to be a leader in the market, even if season two of True Detective was a huge letdown.

The major networks make millions on advertising during “prime time”. Shows rise and fall based on their viewership and their ratings drive the price of advertising minutes and so on and so on until you reach the point where: unless you faithfully watch your favorite shows every week at the same time (until the network shakes things up and moves your favorite show from Tuesday to Friday – which is a death sentence by the way, nobody watches tv on Friday) you run the risk of the show being cancelled. And even if you faithfully watch and tweet and blog about your favorite show it still might get cancelled simply because the network isn’t earning enough money…not that it isn’t earning any money…just not enough.

There is a tipping point coming with how people will accept consuming shows – whether they be dramas or sitcoms. Maybe it’s these millennials I keep hearing so much about. There will come a point and I would wager it will be gradual at first, where networks start fighting back against the streaming providers and start launching shows in the digital arena exclusively – shows that never see network airwaves but are produced with the same quality and funding. Sure, you may have to sit through a commercial about dryer sheets or an erectile dysfunction drug but if you shaved three commercial breaks to one or two the viewers get more and more excited.

What I haven’t even spoken about here and may explore in another article is advertising in sports. That is something that will, so long as they remain equitable, keep networks afloat and flush with cash.

For now, give some thought to how you prefer to consume your entertainment. If your favorite network show was available, all 20+ episodes, right up front would you prefer that? Or do you like the anticipation of week to week? There is a reality that some shows – like procedural cop shows – that probably would not do well in the streaming environment. There’s a moment where if you watch enough of them in a row it starts to sink in that really they’re all the same episode with some names changed. On the flip side take for example cartoons: watching a cartoon with its non-sequitur episode design in bulk makes perfect sense. Each episode is a completely new adventure for the characters and they are able to continue evolving rather than having to maintain a role.

It is important to continue to keep an open mind about the direction technology is taking us. What is the next big thing? I can’t rightly say, but I do know that we are on the forefront of a new age and digital media will be king; food for thought.

Tim Blacksmith
Writer/Editor at

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