The year appointment television died

Is anyone still letting the networks, cable channels tell them when to watch?

  • Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in "House of Cards," one of the online series in 2013 that is changing the way we watch TV.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in "House of Cards,"… (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix )
December 27, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

The most important TV moment of 2013 didn’t even happen on television.

It came on Feb. 1 when Netflix made all 13 episodes of season one of “House of Cards” available online for its subscribers.

Social media and the Internet lit up the next two weeks with personal accounts of subscribers “binge-viewing” the Baltimore-made political thriller starring Kevin Spacey — fans streaming one episode after another until they had their fill.

Given that binge-viewing had been going on for years with DVDs, and that media habits started more than a half-century ago don’t end overnight, it would probably be an overstatement to call 2013 the year appointment television died. But it was definitely the year appointment TV was diagnosed as terminal.

The effects can be seen across the media landscape.

Public television viewers who can’t wait for season six of “Doc Martin” to start in February don’t have to hold off on seeing the cranky Brit doctor marry the mother of his child. They can go to Acorn.TV, sign up for a free month’s subscription, and watch the full season of one of public TV’s most popular comedies right now.

Meanwhile, in addition to books, diapers, shoes and baby food, Amazon.com is offering its own in-house-produced first-run series, with John Goodman and Clark Johnson, in the political comedy “Alpha House.” And you don’t have to wait on delivery; all you have to do is go to Amazon.com and become an Amazon Prime subscriber.

Live events, like a Ravens football game, are still communal media moments that demand everyone be in front of their TVs at a set time determined by other parties — in this case, the networks and the NFL. Ditto for live awards shows and finales of a few, rare long-running series.

But outside of such large, live TV happenings, the all-ruling power of the prime-time schedule, which has been the network TV template since 1948, has been broken by new distribution models that allow viewers to call the shots and tailor their viewing experiences to their wants and needs.

The sense that a tipping point has been reached in the way we watch TV is being felt from Hollywood, where online viewing is changing the kinds of stories that get to be told, to millions of U.S. homes where viewers find themselves unconsciously pushing imaginary fast-forward buttons on their channel changers during commercials when they happen to be watching live.

After “Breaking Bad” won the top Emmy as best drama in September, creator Vince Gilligan articulated the transformation being felt in the creative community.

“Television has changed a lot in six years,” Gilligan told reporters backstage at the Emmys, referencing the time his show had been on the air.

“I’m no expert on the sociological elements of it, but I’ve got to think a big part of what has changed is streaming video on demand, particularly with operations like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime,” he added. “I think Netflix kept us on the air. Not only are we standing up here [as Emmy winners], I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond season two. It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”

A.J. Rose, a Goucher College student majoring in media studies, found support for Gilligan’s sense of the role on-demand video played in keeping his series on the air — and how important such a nonlinear model is to the future of TV.

In a research paper this fall for a class I taught at the Towson-based liberal arts college, Rose interviewed 20 students who became avid fans of the show, and found that 15 of them watched the show on Netflix or illegally downloaded it online — rather than viewing it on the basic cable channel AMC. And those are viewers in the demographic most desired by network and cable programmers.

Trying to cash in on the appetite for binge-viewing in its own TV way, AMC is offering a marathon with every episode of “Breaking Bad” this holiday weekend. It will offer a similar marathon of “Walking Dead” episodes starting at 9 a.m. New Year’s Eve.

And it is not all about binge-viewing. Some of the shows are made available online on a one-episode-a-week schedule — mimicking the old, over-the-air, rollout model — rather than Netflix’s 13-episode drop. The fact that analysts are still debating the wisdom of the all-at-once release for “House of Cards” indicates how transitional a period we are in.

More evidence yet of the way online viewing is driving that change can be found in Nielsen now counting all viewing done in a 24-hour period as a prime metric — rather than just the “live” telecast itself.

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