Traditional linear TV, as we know it, is dying. Broadcast viewership is down, ratings are dropping and advertisers are switching platforms. Nevertheless we’ve entered into what many consider the golden age of TV. Good TV is in high demand, maybe more-so now than ever, but a lot of it isn’t on broadcast TV networks. With that in mind, it’s not hard to picture a future in which TV goes nearly exclusively digital.
Broadcast TV is still holding on primarily due to its delivery of live news, events, sports or otherwise. Yet even those events are suffering. This year the NFL saw the lowest Super Bowl ratings since 2009. Even before the Super Bowl, the NFL’s regular-season ratings were down 13 percent, according to MoffettNathanson Research. The World Series has also seen a decline in viewership. This year’s World Series saw a decline in viewership of 23 percent from 2017. The Golden Globes and the Grammys were also down from 2017, and this year’s Oscars were the least-watched in history.
This is surely the result of the cord cutting revolution brought about by streaming services. In the 3rd quarter of 2018, major pay-TV providers, making up 95 percent of the market, lost about 975,000 net subscribers. On the other hand, during that time, Netflix netted 1.09 million new subscribers in the U.S. alone – adding another 5.87 million internationally.
Worse yet, the ad-buying firm Magna predicted a decline of at least 2 percent per year for ad sales through 2022. This decline is no doubt, in part, due to broadcast TV’s declining viewership. Advertisers are moving to internet-based entertainment sources like YouTube and Facebook instead.
Furthermore, sports fans that choose to cut the cord are still able to find their sports on streaming TV services like YouTube TV, Sling TV, Hulu Live TV, DirectTV Now and PlayStation Vue. Even Amazon got a slice of the action this year by offering Thursday night football games on Amazon Prime. This point is particularly important as it shows the way forward. We can now get a streaming service capable of providing us compelling TV shows and movies that we can access when we want and where we want, but they can also provide timely, live programming like NFL games – and at the pricing model we expect from a digital streaming service. It’s a breaking down of the wall between the Netflix model and the linear TV model. There is now officially a precedent for having your cake and eating it too.
The really scary question for TV networks, as unlikely as it may be, is what if the NFL signs a contract with Amazon Prime or builds their own straight-to-consumer streaming service instead of signing deals with them next time the contract is due for renewal?
Yet if live events are what traditional broadcast television has been clinging to and those numbers aren’t looking good, what about broadcast TV shows?
They’re also struggling. ABC and NBC both had failure rates of over 60 percent for new TV shows during the 2017-18 season. CBS fared a bit better, but still ended up canceling half of its 8 new scripted TV series. Even AMC’s juggernaut, “The Walking Dead,” has seen a consistent decline in ratings. Some even predict the show’s ratings will only continue to drop.
However, shows or showrunners that move from cable TV to streaming platforms are thriving. Filmmakers struggling to pitch their latest passion project to Hollywood producers, are likely tired of the current fixation with remakes, sequels, prequels and superheroes. They’re turning to Netflix and Amazon Prime instead. There they have the freedom and the budget to make the types of films and TV shows that Hollywood and linear TV networks are too scared to make.
As a result, most of the Golden Globe nominated TV offerings in the last couple of years have come from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO (a premium channel that’s also accessible via paid streaming service). Even YouTube Premium is beginning to compete in the space, with Hollywood level productions like “Origin” and “Cobra Kai.”
Most networks, especially the big three, are unlikely to have taken the chance on shows like “Stranger Things,” “Black Mirror,” “BoJack Horseman” or “Orange is the New Black.” Yet they’ve done very well for Netflix.
More interestingly, Netflix and Amazon Prime have become a home for once canceled TV shows. These are shows that have struggled to bring in ratings for broadcast TV networks, but maintain a strong following due to their presence on streaming platforms or via paid digital download.
One of the most interesting cases is that of “The Expanse,” a fan favorite science fiction show based on the book series by James S. A. Corey. Fans and critics alike considered it one of the best shows on TV. Alcon Entertainment created and own the show, but SyFy owned the distribution rights. The problem with that arrangement ended up being that declining broadcast viewership meant the show could be a success digitally, but still a failure for SyFy. After three seasons, SyFy wasn’t seeing the ratings they were hoping for so they canceled the series.
This all played out over the summer in what could have easily been a compelling TV drama in its own right. The cast and crew of the show, knowing the series was primarily known to audiences through Amazon Prime instead of SyFy, started a twitter campaign asking fans to tweet at the Amazon, Amazon Prime and Amazon Studios twitter accounts with #SavetheExpanse, in the hopes Jeff Bezos, an ardent fan of the book series, would take notice. Other fans even hired a plane to circle Amazon Studios’ headquarters in Santa Monica, California with a banner saying, “Save The Expanse.” Later, after Jeff Bezos made the announcement that they were indeed reviving the show, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke admitted she was having cakes delivered to her and all sorts of people from George R.R. Martin, to Patton Oswalt, to the founder of Craigslist had been emailing them asking them to save it.
There are other stories like this one as well, though, admittedly, not quite so fantastical. The important takeaway here is that even good TV shows sometimes can’t survive in broadcast TV’s outmoded model. Shows with sizable followings that aren’t able to survive on broadcast television are being canceled. In the past, they would have stayed canceled and fans would have lamented the loss – the same way fans still lament the loss of Joss Whedon’s 2002 cult favorite “Firefly.” Yet they’re being given new life on streaming platforms where they stand to have a much longer shelf life.
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Variety that It’s the best time in the history of television to be a producer and a creator.”
That’s likely because streaming services have expanded the playing field exponentially and good TV is in high demand as competition continues to grow. Netflix, in particular, has upped the ante in recent years both in terms of quality and quantity. They’re, no doubt, feeling the pressure to do so as the shadow of Disney’s imminent streaming service (Disney+) looms over the playing field. The media giant owns all of Disney’s content plus Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, ABC and ESPN. They have also pulled all their content from Netflix, and Netflix has cancelled nearly all of its Marvel TV series – with “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” expected to follow shortly after the release of the seasons currently in production.
Nevertheless, Netflix boasted upwards of 700 original TV shows, 80 of which are non-English-language productions from outside the U.S., and 80 original films in 2018 alone. Their original content is clearly driving their growth. So a future in which Netflix’s library is made up exclusively of their own content, yet is still worth the subscription fee, is not an unlikely scenario.
Right now it feels like there’s an arms race in terms of building exclusive content between the major streaming services, and it has proven very enticing for big names in the industry. These services, Netflix in particular, are pumping out content at a pace broadcast networks can’t hope to replicate. More importantly, digital streaming services can provide filmmakers and TV show creators something of value that linear networks can’t. Places like Netflix and Amazon Prime have the data to know what their customers are watching. In addition to avoiding the handcuff of branding or content ratings, streaming services can go to their content creators with the metrics to prove that what they made has found an audience. Data about their customers habits and likes and dislikes is a powerful tool that streaming services hold over their broadcast competition.
Recently broadcast networks have begun looking towards a future where the traditional method of delivery isn’t viable anymore. In 2015, HBO launched HBO Now and CBS launched CBS All Access, becoming the first of the mainstream channels to roll out their own streaming apps to compete with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Both HBO Now and CBS All Access have enjoyed early success thanks to compelling exclusive TV shows. And since those services began, the two networks have released, or announced, more content exclusive to their streaming service.
These streaming apps from mainstream networks begin as apps that offer their content to anyone who pays for the content through a cable or satellite provider. Eventually that locked experience becomes open as the networks create an additional service for subscribers who aren’t paying for cable or satellite. From there it isn’t hard to imagine the most successful of these services breaking away from cable to go exclusively digital. But they’ll have to build their library of original content in order to justify the cost for consumers.
If all of this proves to be true and digital streaming does run traditional broadcast almost completely out of business, then consumers will face a similar problem linear broadcast TV faced in its infancy. The exclusive content wars are driving prices up and people are having to choose between the services. The streaming landscape looks a bit like the wild west right now. Consumers will soon need content bundling options in order to get everything they want without paying as much as standard cable or satellite.
A la carte has its benefits, like being able to add HBO Now just long enough to get through the latest season of “Game of Thrones,” and then cancel it so as not to pay for the rest of the year’s worth of content you don’t plan on watching. And perhaps a la carte will remain an option for each service, but the real future of TV rests in the hands of whoever is able to create a bundle of content providers all in one place. And Amazon may, again, have the example of the way forward with its optional add on channels like Starz, Showtime and HBO.
So yes, traditional linear broadcast TV, as we know it, is dying. But something pretty similar is likely to rise from its ashes. The future is hybrid streaming services with compelling original movies and TV shows plus access to linear content like live sports and events.