For network affiliates, TV's evolution into an on-demand medium has been mostly bad news, costing them viewers with no real financial upside. At some point, station groups are going to have to figure out how to make their way in an on-demand word -- and urging viewers to record shows on their DVRs isn't it.
Can Local TV Adapt To An On-Demand World?
Let’s face it: TV is becoming an on-demand medium.
I know this because CBS told me so. Last week, while watching CBS This Morning, the network posted this crawl across the bottom of the screen, apparently hoping to catch folks heading off for work: SET YOUR DVR TO RECORD CBS THIS MORNING.
The DVR is, in essence, a machine for converting plain old linear TV into on-demand TV.
It wasn’t too long ago that CBS along with every other broadcaster fretted that the DVR was going to kill broadcasting by giving viewers a chance to zap all the commercials.
The broadcast networks have long recognized that on-demand was where TV was heading. In fact, it was Disney that started broadcasting in that direction. Next month, it will be 10 years since it struck a deal with Apple to sell ABC shows on iTunes.
Over the past decade, the networks have rarely missed an opportunity to make an on-demand play. You can watch Big Four network shows on cable and satellite VOD platforms, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, the networks’ own websites and elsewhere.
This week, NBC announced that it was placing all its current shows and “thousands of hours” from the NBCU libraries on a Roku platform. As a Roku guy with the latest iteration of the box, I immediately downloaded the NBC app and watched Best Show Ever the day after its live airing. (The Neil Patrick Harris circus was better when I DVR’d it last week. I could skip the commercials and the video quality was considerably better.)
You can’t quite say that you can watch whatever network show you want whenever you want because the networks, perhaps in deference to their affiliates, do not make all their shows immediately available on demand. But the shows get there soon enough.
The only programming that doesn’t really lend itself to on-demand is sports and a few awards shows like the Oscars and Emmys that have sports-like competitive drama (Who’s going to win Best Supporting Actress?!).
Some might include newscasts as programming you need to watch live. I’m not among them. Except for important breaking news, like portions of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. this week, you can wait a few hours to watch the news with no harm done.
The problem with news is that its value slips with every tick of the clock and after those few hours has virtually no value. That why they used yesterday’s paper as fish wrapper.
I would venture that on-demand is the preferred way of watching scripted TV for the folks that have the money, broadband pipes and technical dexterity to manage it.
It’s best when you can get the shows without commercials as you can with Nexflix, Amazon and the new Hulu option or with the ability to zap the commercials as you can with the DVR. Somehow, watching on-demand shows with no commercial skipping function as I did Best Show Ever seems to be more annoying than watching TV live.
If you need more evidence of where things are going, consider Apple’s slick new OTT box, which it introduced to the faithful two weeks ago. From what I can tell from the video demos and reviews, it takes navigating multiple on-demand offerings to the next level. “The whole interface has a lot of ‘whoosh’ to it—whooshing when you enter into an app, whooshing as you swipe through lists of things, whooshing as you bring up and dismiss Siri,” says reviewer Margaret Rhodes in Wired.
But the box makes no accommodation for linear TV, even though Apple is said to be interested in rolling out a linear TV service. The box doesn’t even have DVR functionality.
For network affiliates, this powerful on-demand trend has been mostly bad news. Stuck in the linear rut, they not only have lost their exclusivity to network programming (and thus viewership), but they have not been able to take advantage of the trend themselves. That’s because pretty much the only programming they own is news. And, as I said, news has limited on-demand value.
But it does have some. Whatever it is, stations have to milk it and many are — by liberating newscasts from the daily schedule and making them available along with news clips through various digital media.
A big opportunity is NewsOn, the joint venture of several stations groups that is developing an ad-supported platform that would aggregate newscasts and news clips from stations around the country.
I wrote about its great potential for reaching out-of-market viewers when it was announced last June, but it’s really aimed at in-market viewers, giving them more opportunity to watch local news not only live, but also when it is most convenient — as all good on-demand services should. If the extra eyeballs can be counted, they can be monetized.
NewsOn also sorts the clips and presents them so users may watch the same story from different stations, and it creates compilations on various topics. Such repurposing creates more inventory, more revenue.
By the way, NewsOn is still saying it will launch sometime this fall, but with greater reach (75% of TV homes) than it had originally announced. That suggests that it has been successful in finding more groups to participate. Charter members include ABC, Hearst, Cox, Media General and Raycom.
To be meaningful players in the on-demand world, broadcasters will have to go beyond news and produce entertainment programming with substantial shelf-life. You cannot repurpose programming that you don’t own.
Several major station groups including Tribune, Raycom, Media General/Meredith, Tegna and Sinclair are striving to produce more of their own entertainment programming.
So far, the output has been frothy fare, good enough to fill a half hour in daytime or even prime access, but not good enough to merit an on-demand after-life. Even the best of broadcast syndication from Hollywood doesn’t cut it in the on-demand world.
Unfortunately, creating entertainment programming with on-demand potentials carries more risk than a station group of any size should reasonably bear.
No cause for panic. Inertia is as powerful a force in TV as it is in nature. People will continue to watch TV as they have always watched TV — when it is originally broadcast — but each season the number will be smaller than the season before.
At some point, stations will have to figure out how to make their way in the on-demand world. And encouraging viewers to record everything on their DVR just isn’t it.