What is television? A box that sits in one’s living room and projects images by way of cable/satellite? Or is it a broad term for things produced within the entertainment industry for projection (initially, to exclude films later broadcast) by way of those mysterious boxes? The answer is both, but the differences grow larger and larger in the internet-heavy world we now live in. In my family home there are three televisions and all of us watch television regularly. However, during the majority of the year I live in a college dorm where I own no television but still I watch television regularly. How mysterious!
The effect has a slight level of irony to it in that television producers strive to make shows that are addicting and intriguing enough to get audiences coming back week after week and season after season. The funny thing about audiences is that when they truly latch on to some piece of entertainment they will often go to lengths to gain it, even if it means moving beyond certain lines to do so. My family loves Dexter and proudly pays the Showtime subscription to watch it, but when I am unable to access such subscription (not true, but this is a hypothetical) I still desire to watch Dexter.
Enter internet streaming. I would argue internet streaming started sometime in 2007/8 (Hulu launched in March 2007, which seems like…forever ago), and it didn’t really take off until around two years ago when everyone suddenly looked up from their laptop monitors and realized that everyone else also had a subscription to Netflix Instant Streaming! Now many people watch the majority of their television online regardless of whether they have access to an actual television. It’s easier. It’s cheaper. It’s all around more convenient. That’s what the Internet is for, right?
There’s a drawback. This drawback works against the consumers but must all the same be accepted. NBC is a business that cannot spend money producing episodes of Community unless those episodes break even on the cost, and really it needs to profit (need you ask why?). This is easy with three minutes of television commercials between each of an episode’s three/five acts, but the internet makes it a tad harder. The problem with DVRs was that people would fast forward through commercials, cutting a source of profit for the networks and advertisers.
Television shows (and movies, to an extent) were online long before networks started to legally stream them. Any high school/college student can tell you the websites – TVduck, Sidereel, Megavideo and Videobb – oh, those annoying “You’ve watched 72 minutes of programming, please Register or come back in 60 minutes” messages!! I, like many, have experienced time and time again the agony of having ten minutes left in an episode only to have to wait an hour to see who done it. I’ve always been amazed by the hundreds of people who seem to make it their side job to, for no pay, upload just about every television show that airs within hours of its broadcast (if not suspiciously sooner). These places are no secret. Networks know they exist and, despite efforts, know they cannot pull every copyright infringing video on the internet.
It’s a strong example of consumers pushing a new market. People’s dependency of the internet for their television forced the networks to change its focus. NBC/ABC reasonably jumped right into new territory but putting all its current content on Hulu the day after, and they have continued this through recent years. FOX also streamed shows box on Hulu and its own website the day after until the current television season, which we’ll get to later. CBS was the lone holdout because much of their content is not owned by CBS; it is licensed to them from the production firms that produce them (Big Bang Theory, Mentalist, CSI, so on). Perhaps this has something to do with why CBS is continually the number one network, but that’s beside the point. Now, CBS has also joined the internet streaming market, hosting its shows to its own website (not Hulu), the day after.
Networks are cautious towards internet streaming, but not because they are television set purists (some, maybe, but not the ones who care about staying on air). Streamed shows still run ads during act breaks, and for the longest time these ads were usually only one minute to half a minute (compared to three minutes during broadcast). Recently, Hulu and CBS have started bumping ads upwards of one and a half to two minutes again, but commercials are the price you pay to watch your shows. Indeed, advertising on streaming video is better than broadcast because it brings the added potential for clicks. Instead of seeing a commercial and thinking it was good or bad, viewers can now click on ads they like and find themselves on the website for that product. YouTube Partners work under the same principles for profiting off of views (content creators earned more for ad clicks than ad views).
In February 2010, Home Box Office launched HBO Go, its own streaming service, along with an iOS/Android app a few months later. Unlike network streaming, HBO controls the entire process and owns all rights. This means HBO Go can stream literally every episode of every HBO show ever produced along with 150 monthly rotating films, documentaries, mini-series, and specials that they license. Moreover, HBO doesn’t profit from ads but subscriptions, so its streaming is commercial-free same as its broadcasts. The catch is that these premium networks make profit from subscriptions, not ads. Hence, viewer subscriptions through cable providers is still their bottom line and as such is the only way to view their programs via streaming.
You can watch HBO Go, but only if you or someone you know has an HBO subscription. HBO Go is old enough and successful enough to be compatible with nearly all cable providers now, but as an example: Showtime Anytime launched in October 2010 exclusively for Comcast subscribers. It’s now branched into AT&T U-Verse, but that leaves many subscribers out of the loop. It’s a major negative, in my opinion, because I feel that many subscribers would gladly pay a $10/month fee to only stream HBO/Showtime instead of the $25/month-ish charge most cable packages require (i.e. “I don’t need all of these channels, only regular HBO!”). Charging for streaming isn’t a revolutionary idea, though (Netflix, Hulu Plus), so the issue lies in cost-benefit, not greed. At least, not for premium networks.Consider this: for main networks, a hour-long drama needs to pull as close to ten million viewers per week to make up its costs. “Popular” shows like The Mentalist and Person of Interest pull 13-15 million. HBO’s Game of Thrones, on the other hand, pulled an average of 2.5 million and only 3.04 million for the season finale. We could spend an entire article discussing the ins-and-outs of television viewership, breakdown by demographics, as well as week-over-week change (Game of Thrones pulled 2.66 for episode nine, then 3.04 for episode ten – this is considered a success). For this article’s purposes, the point is that premium networks have less viewers but at the same time spend a lot on their programs ($50 million for Game of Thrones, anyone?). It pays off, but it also means they can’t waste funds.
Like the best television seasons, To Be Continued….