There has been much talk recently about how we are experiencing a ‘Golden Age’ for television. There’s certainly no doubting the quality of the programmes being produced; from Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead (to name but a few) in the US to the likes of Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Dr Who right here at home.
But what is it that has made this such a great time for TV and, as business models and viewer behaviours continue to change, how much longer can we expect it to continue?
One reason is, as ever, money. As Derek Thomson has argued, the so-called ‘Golden Age’ can be traced back to the rise of cable channels, in particular HBO, who led the way with a business model based around subscriptions, rather than advertising.
Channels dependent on viewer subscriptions need to attract loyal subscribers, not just casual viewers. And they quickly found that the best way to do that is to create ‘must see’ shows like The Sopranos and Sex and The City that would keep viewers tuning in month after month and that would justify a monthly fee.
Another factor to consider is the changing way that we consume content. We all know that the way we engage with TV series has changed. Previously, you’d have to tune in at the right date and time (or programme your clunky VCR) in order to catch your favourite shows. Today, these programmes are, in more ways than one, genuinely unmissable. Forget to tune in for the latest episode of, say, Game of Thrones and you can simply catch up on Sky Go. As such, hit shows are increasingly made as much for the DVD boxset and on-demand market as they are for linear viewing.
And, as viewers become more loyal to shows and content becomes more accessible, content makers have been able to push the boundaries further, making shows that are more ambitious and more complex: a trend that has been referred to in some quarters as the ‘novelisation’ of TV.
These trends are driving a convergence between content creators and content platforms. As content creators become increasingly focused on delivering their content direct to the audience (for instance, HBO is investing heavily in its online offering), businesses that have traditionally profited from delivering that content themselves are looking to create their own. Netflix is probably the most high profile example of this. Having built a business from making other people’s content available on-demand on a subscription basis, it is now making its own shows with Kevin Spacey starring in House of Cards earlier this year. Netflix has been open about the fact that convergence is driving this strategy, with the company’s chief content office admitting that "the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us."
In many ways, Netflix typifies another major change in viewer behaviour. Rather than release episodes of House of Cards a week at a time, Netflix opted to make the whole series available all at once. Many people have discussed how this approach – making everything accessible, instantly – is helping to create a ‘binge-viewing’ culture, with viewers racing through entire series in a single evening or weekend rather than over several months.
Some are concerned that this binging behaviour will in itself change the content we consume, with shows already leaning towards shorter series of 10-13 episodes rather than the 20+ that was common in the West Wing era. The creator of Heroes, Tim Kring, also spoke at MIP this month about this issue. He was more relaxed about the impact binge-viewing might have on content, comparing it to the way that pop songs or films have found an optimum length over time and emphasising that any medium will always need to adapt to its audience’s expectations and attention spans.
There is no doubt that, as changing viewing habits both enable and necessitate new business models, the nature of the shows we watch will also change and there are arguments to be made for both sides about whether this will extend or curtail this ‘Golden Age’. Ultimately however, the quality of the TV industry’s output can speak for itself and, despite the transitions at the heart of the industry, I suspect that audiences will have plenty of great shows to enjoy in the years to come.
What do you think? Are you a binge-viewer? Or do you value the anticipation of waiting for a new episode each week? And how do you think changing methods of consumption will change the content itself? Do let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
By Stella Medlicott, chief marketing officer, Red Bee Media