This is one in a series of essays running this week and next about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters.
It is a secret only intermittently discussed that the anointed Golden Age Of Television is also very often The Golden Age Of Nobody Knowing What The Frosted Flakes Is Going On, and one of the reasons for that is that nobody even knows for sure what it means to watch television anymore.
Let's take a quick romp through an existential crisis on which we touched previously: What even is television? (If you said "a vast wasteland," you may be watching the television of many years ago and I'd like to borrow your time machine and take a mulligan on a certain sixth-grade dance.)
Consider a regular episode of a regular show that runs on a regular channel like HBO or CBS or SyFy. Let's run down the number of ways a person might watch that episode. No show is going to be available in every one of these ways, of course, but there are shows where lots and lots of them are possible, and while some of them are similar, they actually all can raise slightly different challenges when you're making, monetizing, and marketing television, not to mention measuring its audience.
[A side point: "Monetize" is a terrible word; it is only human that it should make your blood turn briefly to acid and your body tense and your teeth vibrate as if the high-pitched squeal of malfunctioning audio equipment is accompanying you everywhere you go. But it's also a handy way to pull in the many, many ways in which people try to make money from television, which include subscriptions to cable, subscriptions to online services, money from ads, individual episode purchases, other revenue streams like merchandise and songs from musical episodes, and on and on.]
So here we go.
- Using an antenna and receiving the show over the air at the time it's first on, which is not only still possible for many of TV's most popular shows, but could increase in popularity for people who stop paying for cable subscriptions.
- Using a cable subscription and watching it on cable (and when I say "cable" in this list, you can assume that means "cable or satellite") at the time it's first on, using your television.
- Watching it on your phone, tablet or computer, using an app or a piece of hardware that lets you stream or transfer your cable TV from your physical television to other devices.
- Recording it on a DVR and watching it within a day or two.
- Recording it on a DVR and watching it months later.
- Watching a re-airing on the same network in the same week.
- Watching a re-airing on the same network weeks or months later. (These are reruns. They are much less dependably available than they were 20 years ago.)
- Watching it someday in syndication.
- Watching it on demand through your cable provider (like Comcast or Time Warner).
- Paying for an a la carte single-network service, like the HBO NOW service that recently premiered, that serves programming to a set-top box or other device without a cable subscription.
- Paying for a package of channels that can be streamed without a cable subscription, like the recently launched Sling TV.
- Using a third-party service like Hulu with a subscription to the service (which often means shows are available pretty quickly after air).
- Using a third-party service like Hulu without a subscription to the service (which sometimes means a longer delay before the episode is available).
- Using a third-party service like Hulu that separately allows side subscriptions to particular premium channels for an extra cost – Hulu has just debuted this model in a partnership with Showtime.
- Using an app or web site owned by the network that doesn't require a cable subscription sign-in, or an embed on another site of the video the network provides. (Like watching an episode of The Daily Show on Comedy Central's site or embedded on somebody else's site.)
- Using an app or web site owned by the network that requires that you log in with your cable subscription.
- Purchasing the episode or the full season through a third-party seller like Amazon, Google or Apple and watching it on your computer.
- Purchasing the episode or the full season through a third-party seller and watching it on a set-top box like Apple TV or Roku.
- Purchasing the episode or the full season through a third-party seller and watching it on your phone or your tablet, either via download or streaming.
- Waiting until it's available free on a service like Amazon Prime, Hulu or Netflix and catching up then.
- Buying a DVD set.
- Checking DVDs out of the library.
- Watching with a friend who has access through any of these methods.
- Downloading a bootleg.
- Watching a bootleg on YouTube or another similar service.
So that's 25 that I can think of, 23 of them above-board (we'll return in another piece to the two that aren't). We are currently assuming you can't stream television to a watch, and we are not counting Google Glass or consuming a show in the form of clips instead of full episodes (which is really common for, for instance, late-night and sketch shows). There are probably some I'm forgetting.
But despite, or perhaps because of, this surfeit of options, this isn't yet a smoothly functioning world of total flexibility, nor does it follow predictable rules. On the contrary, it's often chaotic, and it can feel badly broken on the consumer side. Different shows appear on different schedules for different windows, with and without ads, free or for a price, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly. Availability changes not according to transparent rules like seasonality or logic but according to opaque ones like contract negotiations and shifting, overlapping partnerships tied to gruesome-sounding notions like corporate synergy.
Consumers often think about shows in terms of networks of origin, in part because that's the way shows are still branded. It makes sense that you'd expect all shows that air on Fox or all shows that air on NBC to behave in the same way when it comes to availability, because they're presented and marketed together as Fox shows or NBC shows. But the studio that actually makes the show and makes streaming deals may or may not be part of the network it airs on. Fun facts, for example: Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs on Fox, but is made by Universal Television – the production arm of NBCUniversal. Modern Family airs on ABC but is made by the production arm of 21st Century Fox. A whole bunch of television is made by Warner Brothers and Sony. So for the purposes of when and why a show is available other than over the air or on cable, it's often far from obvious at whom you should even be mad if you can't find it.
All these studios and all these networks are making different choices about what to make available and when. They make different gambles about what the right strategy is – about how much to give stuff away and how much to keep it for yourself. Should you try to pull everybody into your standalone app or service? Should you have lots of partners and give away your stuff in lots of places? Should you, as a network, try to make and own more of your shows in-house rather than licensing them from other studios? That last one is very popular, in part for the never-unpopular reason that it lets you keep all the money, and nothing drives television quite like The First Law Of Conservation Of Moolah. (It also often sheds light on why borderline shows are renewed or not – again in ways that aren't necessarily transparent to viewers.)
Making all of these deals gets complicated, and it leads to all kinds of suboptimal splintering. In fact, in some cases, the tail of distribution wags the dog of content creation: Ted Sarandos from Netflix said that their desire to get into making original programming wasn't merely about a new world to conquer; it was also a helpful answer to how increasingly hard it is to wrangle acquisition and get exclusivity when you're making streaming deals for other people's stuff, particularly if you get into international markets. If your model is based on acting as a purveyor, why not just make shows yourself that you own and can stream around the world instead of fighting with Hulu and Amazon and whatever studio made the show over who gets to stream it in Japan?
Add, on top of these complications, the fact that there's still a huge struggle to measure who's watching all these shows in all these ways, not to mention which of those viewings are actually worth money. Last year at around this time, we talked about audience measurement in ways that are mostly still applicable: mobile is hard to count, time-shifting complicates the usefulness of same-day ratings, and so forth. The question came up this year in a briefing with the audience research folks at CBS: with everything we know and everything we can track, why is it so hard to just get one number that represents how many people watch something?
The answer was essentially that in large part, they don't care what the total number is, because it's not that useful. From a business perspective, knowing the total number of eyeballs pointed at something was useful when you were making money off all those eyeballs in the same way. But it's not actually that useful to count DVR viewers together with live viewers together with same-week Hulu viewers and mobile app viewers, because advertisers are only dealing with some of those platforms at a time, and they may well be less interested in DVR viewers who skip ads, for instance. (Although my favorite statistic of press tour was CBS's David Poltrack saying that they find that only about 50 percent of DVR ads are fast-forwarded through. 50 percent are allowed to run, which he connected to the fact that people are also on other screens at the same time, meaning they are too distracted to press the button on the remote.) So the reason they don't provide a total number is that they don't really care about a total number; it's nice for talking about cultural trends but not worth much for business, which is what ratings have always been for.
Consider all this talk about distribution methods not in a vacuum but in combination with the laments we discussed about how hard it is to get attention for good shows in a crowded marketplace. One example and a personal story: the FX comedy You're The Worst – about to move to FX's sister network FXX for a second season starting September 9 – didn't get huge ratings in its first season. It did, however, get a ton of critical praise, making it precisely the kind of show network executives are always trying to get people to reconsider.
But this summer, I was trying to catch up with it. I have what amounts to platinum cable that I pay for. I own a lot of devices that I've paid for. I subscribe to a lot of services that I pay for. And I couldn't figure out how to see this show other than buying individual episodes to own forever, which was more of a commitment than I was seeking. Maybe there was a way, but I'm a reasonably decent navigator and I couldn't find one. It wasn't on the FX app, it wasn't on demand through Comcast, and it wasn't available for streaming on Hulu until August 10. Buying is always an option, of course, but when people are already paying for cable to get a particular channel and for services that provide access to shows, it's a lot to ask them to pay two bucks a pop on top of everything else to own episodes of a half-hour show they're currently getting along without – at the same time the network CEO is frustrated that nobody will give anything a second chance and there's too much competition.
I was bored and willing in this case, and while that's a not-ideal reason to pick up a human in a bar, it's a pretty good reason to pick up a television show on the internet.
The point of this is only to say that options for TV viewing theoretically existing in form is not the same as those options existing in practice, which means you never know when the request for more money will pop up to take them from one to the other.
The topic of cord-cutting – of people doing away with cable and getting by with broadband and broadcast – is eternally popular to rhapsodize about, in part because it seems to promise an a la carte world of convenience and freedom. And for some people, it absolutely does; it's particularly nice for people who don't watch much TV and don't care whether what they watch is current.
But look again at that list of 25 ways to watch television, and consider how many potential entry points there are for your dollar even aside from cable: your device, your broadband, your service, your app. We know with reasonable certainty that in ten years, we will be looking at a different landscape. Will it be a more friendly one or a cheaper one? Not to be a cynic, but if we apply a gambling metaphor, the identity of the house hasn't changed that much, so you have to at least consider the possibility that as long as you want in on this particular game, the house will continue to win. Who supplies most people's broadband? Who supplies their tech?
Ultimately, the same people who make money from the way you used to watch TV in the past are, make no mistake, working very hard to make sure they will be the people who make money from the way you will watch TV in the future. Even as services like Sling TV and HBO NOW pull away from building everything on top of a cable subscription, and even as they come up with the 26th and 27th and 35th way to watch, the object remains the same. And it is to entertain you, perhaps to enrich you, and absolutely to charge you.