TV Executive Does Not Like Commercials

Even ex-TV executives don’t like watching linear TV.

A recent NYT piece by Bill Carter examines some of the reasons that network ratings continue to go down. At the very end of the article, after listing the usual suspects such as Daylight Savings Time, the lack of live sports, too many repeated episodes, Carter finally mentions changing audience behavior.

Jeff Gaspin, a former NBC executive, provides the final insight:

Mr. Gaspin said that this year he and his 13-year-old son decided to try out the AMC series The Walking Dead. Hooked by the first two episodes, they set aside an hour at 9 each night to watch the first two years, hour by hour, which Mr. Gaspin had collected through every means available — some episodes from Netflix, some from iTunes, some recorded on the family DVR.

“We learned a new behavior,” Mr. Gaspin said. Finally they caught up to this season’s finale.

“We watched that live,” he said. “It was not nearly as good. The commercials broke the tension. We had watched the other episodes with blankets over our heads. I hate to say this to the AMC executives and everybody else in the business, but I will never watch Walking Dead live again.”

So, why does Carter wait until the last paragraph to even raise the issue of changing viewing patterns? Why isn’t this screamingly obvious to everyone in the television industry? Why isn’t this point made at the very beginning?

Note that Gaspin admits that commercial interruptions actually disrupted the narrative experience. Once he became acclimated to uninterrupted viewing, it also became too difficult to tolerate the interruptions again.

Also note that Gaspin had to collect episodes and seasons from a variety of sources, some free, some paid. This demonstrates how clueless the owners of Walking Dead are. They are using the “windowing” strategy, in which older seasons are streaming on Netflix, more recent seasons available for purchase on iTunes, and the current season only available through the linear television network outlet (requiring careful programming of the DVR). Why force an interested viewer to jump through so many hoops and go to so many places?

Because, of course, of legacy business models and, in the case of a cable network like AMC, the need to get advertising revenue in addition to subscription revenue to fund programming.

The structure of episodic series, that is, having to wait a week between episodes, or a day in the case of daily soap operas, was designed to organize audiences on a regular basis around a commercial message. When viewers watch programs without the commercials, is there any need to force them to view on a schedule?

In this light, it makes sense that Netflix, much to the horror and dismay of the television industry, plans to release full seasons of the series they are financing (Lilyhammer, House of Cards, Arrested Development) all at the same time, precisely to allow viewers the choice to watch as much as they like when they want to watch it. Not needing to organize audiences around commercial messages, Netflix would rather keep subscribers happy by encouraging binge viewing, the opposite strategy from HBO, which doles out its non-commercially-interrupted programs slowly over  time, requiring regular viewing habits.

So, Carter’s article is not just about how audiences are timeshifting and placeshifting and wanting to watch programs on their own terms instead of  on the linear television model, that is during the first telecast on the network schedule, the one most easily measured by Nielsen ratings.

No, the key problem this article raises, without saying so directly, is how the television industry is going to adapt to the increasing desire of audiences to experience programs as programs instead of as advertising vehicles.

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