The fall TV season is well under way and a few things are apparent. First, live viewing continues to decline at a rapid clip. The combined live audience for the major broadcasters is down double digits (again). At the same time, new shows like ABC’s The Good Doctor are seeing record numbers in the DVR-friendly Live+7 window. What’s going on here, and what does it mean for the future of TV?
1. People No Longer Feel Obligated to Watch Live TV.
Media cannot exist independent of culture. The culture determines what is acceptable, what is relevant, and (perhaps most importantly) what is considered socially obligatory. In many parts of the US attending church on Sunday used to be considered de facto obligatory. If you didn’t go people (1) noticed and (2) assumed there was something wrong with you. This is no longer the case. Lots of people (including me) still attend church, but everyone now understands that this is a choice. Some people attend and many others do not.
Prime time TV used to be almost this pervasive. During the 60 years between 1951 (the year I Love Lucy premiered) and 2011 (the year Game of Thrones premiered), broadcast and basic cable dominated the American cultural landscape. People used to talk about TV shows the same way they talked about news, weather, and sports. It was a basic thing people had in common with each other on a daily basis. People who didn’t watch TV always existed, of course, but they were considered outside of the cultural mainstream and obviously a bit weird.
Those days are gone. I genuinely cannot remember the last time anyone mentioned a primetime TV show in everyday conversation. The news, sure. Sports, ok. Live shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or Saturday Night Live – of course. But a person in October 2017 talking to another person in an office about an episode of NCIS that aired the night before? Unimaginable. This culture shift is exactly what we see in the live ratings. People no longer feel any need to watch primetime TV because they know no one else is watching either. The spell has been broken, which brings us to our second point.
2. Quantum Viewing via DVR or VOD Can Work for Legacy TV Brands.
7.9 million people watched The Good Doctor S01E01 in the seven days after the original air date. This number should provide great encouragement to many in the legacy TV business. This is not an R-rated HBO show with dragons or androids (and a healthy dose of nudity) to lure in the viewers. The Good Doctor is mainstream, well-meaning and almost maudlin. It’s Trapper John, M.D. for millennials. Legacy broadcasters are really good (arguably the best) at this type of content. This data clearly demonstrates that on-demand content need not all be edgy or niche-y. It does suggest, however, that legacy content providers need to make this trend their friend and embrace the new viewing patterns.
Up until now this has not exactly been the case. Recall, for example, how aggressively content providers have tried to use US copyright law to block and stifle the deployment of cloud DVRs. In retrospect, this is a really dumb strategy. Viewers are obviously recording The Good Doctor on their local DVR and watching it later. In many cases this means they are skipping the ads. Wouldn’t it better to serve them via a cloud DVR that (1) can be viewed on any screen; (2) accurately captures all browsing and viewing data in real time and (3) does not permit ad skipping? Yeah, I think so too.
But let’s go one further. Why should people have to record The Good Doctor at all? Every legacy pay-TV service should offer all episodes of popular shows like this on-demand (with ads) as a matter of course. Do they? Not as much as one might hope. Broadcaster TVE (TV Everywhere) apps do a good job for the committed fan, but still pose content discovery problems for the casual on-demand viewer. The user still has to (1) change the input to the Smart TV interface or an aftermarket connected device; (2) find the correct app and launch it, (3) authenticate against the pay-TV subscription, and (4) find the show within the app. This quadruple whammy of interface hassle doesn’t faze the typical teenager, but is still a bridge too far for even tech-savvy adults.
Despite the obvious opportunity here to capture the casual on-demand viewer, many MVPDs have been apathetic or downright passive aggressive with respect to their AVOD offerings. The fear of cannibalizing live viewing is still a bugaboo for some. As a result, their AVOD offerings remain a backwater of children cartoons and useless old reruns that nobody cares about. Get over it guys. The future of TV is not necessarily better or worse, but it’s definitely different.
Early adopters abandoned live linear TV viewing of entertainment content several years ago now. The mainstream audience of casual viewers is now joining them. ABC’s The Good Doctor deserves credit for figuring out a recipe that appeals to these viewers. The MVPDs now need to do their part to make it easier for quantum viewers to enjoy this content, and easier for content providers to monetize it.
Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.
Joel is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.