Is TV binge-watching the new norm?
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, December 19, 2013 1:57PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, December 19, 2013 2:00PM EST
TORONTO -- 'Tis the season for TV binge-watching.
Sure, the holidays are for family, friends and spreading good cheer, but true TV addicts see any consecutive stretch of days off as prime time to dive into a marathon viewing session of buzzy shows they missed.
There's no question 2013 was the year that cemented the phenomenon of back-to-back blitzes, and traditional TV broadcasters say they're taking note and working to offer even more options in 2014.
Simply put, bingeing is here to stay and if you weren't among those who indulged over the past 12 months, you were likely out of the loop, says TV expert and pop culture professor Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
He marks 2013 as the year that lounging in front of the tube became socially appropriate behaviour, even necessary, for any self-respecting TV fan to stay on top of what's hot.
"If you didn't know how 'Orange Is the New Black"s first season ended within two weeks you were really kind of out of it," says Thompson, crediting Netflix with the "brilliant" plan of releasing the entire season online at once -- a strategy that also pushed viewers to catch entire hyped seasons of "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development" before the spoilers came out.
"People are willing to give you a spoiler alert up unto a point.... (After that) their attitude is: 'If you're so lazy to have not taken the 13 hours to binge-watch this yet, it's not my fault."'
Netflix has certainly been at the forefront of the phenomenon, more recently making the "Breaking Bad" finale on good old-fashioned broadcast television a smash by allowing latecomers to binge-watch past seasons online, thereby swelling the final TV audience to record numbers.
Broadcast networks say they are getting into the game, too, with Global recently announcing its own live streaming service with full-season access to its top shows where only two or three episodes had been available before.
Global Go, available for iOS, Android and Web, offers live TV and entire seasons for up to 60 days after the finale. However, it requires users to sign in, and currently only permits access to subscribers of Shaw Cable, Shaw Direct, Rogers Cable, Cogeco Cable, Telus Optik TV, Eastlink Cable and Source Cable.
David Purdy, senior vice president of content for Rogers Communications, says all the main networks are eager to tap into the binge-watching phenomenon.
"That's the tip of the iceberg," Purdy says of Global's on-demand addition, which includes the current seasons of 14 shows including "Dracula," "Survivor," "NCIS" and "Elementary."
"What you'll see is CTV and City and CBC follow suit and so I believe in 2014 we'll see full-season stacking rights on most of the prime time main network broadcast shows. And that's a big evolution and very compelling. It means that you can go back and watch 'Glee' from episode 1 or 'Survivor' or 'Modern Family' or 'The Mentalist,' so that's I think big news."
The current batch of CTV's "The Mentalist" as well as the original series "Saving Hope" and "Played" are already available on the CTV Go app, which launched last month with promises of more shows on the way. However, it too requires authentication -- in this case for users to be Fibe and Bell Satellite subscribers. In addition to the previously released TMN GO and Bravo GO, Bell Media is also gearing up to launch TSN GO, RDS GO and CTV News GO.
Purdy says 2014 will be "the watershed moment" where access to complete current seasons of hot shows will be the norm.
"We've always had it on pay TV but we've never had it on broadcast television," he notes, adding that as much as 30 to 40 per cent of viewers of certain City shows tune in after the original broadcast.
"Broadcasters were concerned, and quite frankly a little reactionary, in the sense they wanted people to watch the original broadcast."
Things changed with a ratings system known as C7 firmly taking root -- a ratings measurement that includes viewers who caught a show within seven days of the original broadcast, whether they belatedly watched through on-demand, a personal video recorder or online.
Purdy says recent industry chatter now surrounds extending the count even further than seven days, which would make full-season streaming even more palatable to broadcasters.
In the meantime, Rogers is seeking the rights to previous seasons of its top City shows, which would be offered on a rental basis either a la carte or in an all-you-can-watch model.
"It's critical that cable companies like Rogers be able to offer the ability to go back and start from Season 1.... And I think you're going to see that happen in 2014 in a really meaningful way," says Purdy.
Nevertheless, media futurist Robert Tercek questions how adept broadcasters are in assessing and meeting viewer demands.
Despite any claims of innovation they may make, the truth is they are all playing catch-up with Netflix and a growing number of online providers, says the L.A.-based tech expert.
"Television is shifting really fast and the TV companies are not at the helm, they're not driving the shift. The shift is happening to them," says Tercek, formerly president of digital media at OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, and ex-senior vice president of digital media at Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Tercek derides the ubiquitous broadcast mantra "TV everywhere" as "going nowhere."
"It's a cumbersome system where you have to log in and authenticate -- and it's double authentication, you have to prove you're a cable subscriber and you have to log in to the channel, it's a hassle," he says, admittedly drawing from his experiences south of the border.
"In the U.S., it's been an unmitigated disaster. The channels are spending somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million a year to run these services, they get no revenue from them, they're not making money on it, they're spending money and no one's watching. These things are not working."
He says that whereas Netflix is focused on increasing subscribers, and therefore satisfying customers, broadcasters are focused on making money and maximizing revenue.
"They don't know how to build software and they don't really care about customers," Tercek complains.
"If they cared about customers they wouldn't be drilling customers for $80 a month. This is an industry that routinely abuses their customers so they're not going to change that now. They've crippled the digital services deliberately to keep people paying for television. They wouldn't even offer this stuff if Netflix didn't exist."
Still, he dismisses doomsday predictions of mass cord-cutting -- viewers cancelling their cable TV subscriptions in favour of watching content on the Internet or free over-the-air signals.
The big hurdle remains the fact sports is largely not available anywhere other than live broadcast television, he says, but that too could change.
"Right now the primordial fear of the pay TV ecosystem is that somebody like Google or YouTube will come along and bid a massive amount for NFL rights," says Tercek, noting that would result in a "giant exodus of subscribers from pay TV."
In Canada, Purdy promises that more mobile sports options are on the way.
He says Rogers' $5.2-billion deal with the National Hockey League makes sure the games will stream on any mobile device, including tablets and smartphones, in addition to PCs and gaming consoles.
"And we're not the only game in town. I think you'll see the other vertically integrated players pick up the rights they need to deliver TV anywhere," he says, adding that Rogers is talking to CBC about securing rights to FIFA and the Olympics to make even more sports available online.
"I truly think this is the year where it just explodes."
Bell Media recently announced it's already lined up two of the biggest upcoming live events for its CTV Go app -- the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards are both set to stream live through the app, while a multiyear deal with the National Football League for CTV and TSN includes digital media rights for CTV Go and TSN Go.
Purdy says it helps that four of Canada's main broadcasters are affiliated with cable services -- Rogers Media and Rogers, Shaw Media and Shaw, Bell Media and Bell, and TVA and Videotron.
"Broadcasters in this country, and specialty channels, are more sensitive to and aware of the needs of the distributor and the end customer than they are in the States because of this vertical integration. So I think it's quite likely that 2014 will be the watershed year for 'TV anywhere' and Canada could end up leading the world in this regard because of that vertical integration. We're not having silly debates between the broadcaster and the distributor."
Purdy, too, is skeptical of how many TV fans would cut the cord, although he acknowledges that it is a phenomenon Rogers is watching.
"How many people are comfortable watching 'Breaking Bad' next year? Or 'Game of Thrones' next year? If you're the type of person where you can discipline yourself and you're willing to wait and be 12 months behind everyone else, then I guess an over-the-top service works," he says.
"Most people I know, they wanted to watch the final episode of 'Breaking Bad' with their friends and that's the type of phenomenon I think that favours the traditional system."
Thompson notes that "practically none" of his students have a TV set, but he insists traditional TV is still very relevant to a lot of people.
"These people who have been saying broadcast is dead ignores the fact there are still more people watching television live on a TV set," says Thompson, nevertheless pushing network TV to rethink its programming strategy to retain viewers.
Purdy says Rogers is primarily focused on nabbing viewers aged 15-to-25 years, a demographic especially prone to on-demand, binge-viewing.
"For sure they want a marathon view and for sure they want to be able to create their own tailored television packages," he says.
"They want the ability to have a more unique-to-them television package so that's a big focus for us, too -- packaging flexibility in 2014."
Tercek is skeptical of suggestions that broadcast television remains healthy, insisting "the endgame is in sight."
"The audience for prime time TV in the United States has dropped by 50 per cent in the last decade, I mean it's vanishing before our eyes," he says, noting that Netflix shows including "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" are recognized as just as good as slick premium cable shows.
"Anybody under the age of 30, they don't subscribe to pay TV -- they just get their video on the Internet and if they want to watch something that is encrypted or whatever, paid, they'll just get a bit torrent."
Tercek says traditional TV distribution is gradually rendering the broadcast model irrelevant.
"The studios will supply the Internet with programming but the new distribution is owned by Silicon Valley," he says, citing Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon as the TV industry's true big players.
"YouTube video is growing astronomically fast, nothing in TV is growing that fast.... TV is practically standing still. At what point will the Internet surpass television? Probably sometime next year."