TBS had an offbeat, if belated, Christmas gift for fans of funky comedy Angie Tribeca. The Turner network unveiled all of season four for the police procedural spoof, 10 episodes total, across two nights. Episodes one through five went live Saturday, Dec. 29, and six through 10 went up Sunday, Dec. 30.
TBS’s quirky ploy across that swan-song weekend of 2018 was but the latest display of how traditional networks are rethinking the scheduling of their original series. Viewers are increasingly accustomed to the binge-friendly process that the streamers, including Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video and Hulu, encourage, while traditional TV, with its Tuesdays-at-9 p.m trappings, is at risk of looking archaic.
But those networks can change with the times. Brett Weitz, executive vice president of programming at TBS, said the Angie Tribeca stunt was fitting for a network that “took the standard TV playbook and threw it deep into the trash” a few years ago, evident in Angie Tribeca’s 2016 launch across a 25-hour marathon. “It was an opportunity to do something kind of kitschy and fun,” he said. “We keep people on their toes by doing things that are slightly different.”
If streaming was once viewed as the platform of choice for millennials, the numbers show the subscription video-on-demand concept has reached well beyond those younger viewers. Amazon Prime has more than 100 million subscribers, Netflix has close to 59 million U.S. customers and Hulu recently shared that it hit 25 million. Slowly but surely, your parents are making their way through House of Cards.
Deciding the pace at which one consumes a series is inching toward the norm. “As we see more and more success with the streaming services, sooner or later, networks are going to start to tinker with the scheduling of shows, because they have to,” Mike Bloxham, senior vice president of global media and entertainment at consulting firm Magid, said. “There’s a sense of inevitability to this, even though it’s a big step.”
Indeed, a wide array of networks, primarily on cable, are shaking up the timeworn tradition of weekly program releases. Syfy launched the space thriller Nightflyers, based on a novella by George R.R. Martin, with a nightly episode Dec. 2 to Dec. 6, then the final five episodes Dec. 9 to Dec. 13. Paramount Network premiered original series Heathers on Oct. 25, with all nine episodes airing across five days. If fans of the franchise couldn’t wait for the finale, they could stream the series through the Paramount Network app or website Oct. 22.
AMC also made full seasons of drama The Terror and comedy-drama Lodge 49 available on SVOD platform AMC Premiere before their linear launch. “The audience that wants to watch it linear is simply a different audience than the one that wants to binge it,” David Madden, AMC Networks president of programming, told Broadcasting & Cable late in 2018. “They don’t really cannibalize each other.”
Age of ‘Aquarius’
Bingeing certainly isn’t new, but the frequency among cable networks is gaining momentum. Some bold networks experimented with the strategy a few years ago, as when Starz premiered limited series The Girlfriend Experience, and offered all 13 episodes on opening night — on-demand and online. In 2015, NBC released the whole first season of drama Aquarius, starring David Duchovny as an LAPD detective tracking down Charles Manson in ’60s Los Angeles, on NBC.com, the network app and on demand, following its linear premiere. Some affiliates groused, but then-NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said he was “fully aware how audiences want to consume multiple episodes of new television series faster and at their own discretion.”
About 94% of viewers watched Aquarius on linear television and 6% online, NBC said later. The series limped through two seasons.
Scheduling experimentation is much more commonplace today. That Netflix, Amazon and Hulu will soon be joined by richly funded streaming platforms from The Walt Disney Co. and Apple will only put that many more on-demand series at viewers’ fingertips, and make the weekly releases appear antediluvian.
“Audiences have been exposed to a different way of viewing,” Amanda Lotz, media scholar and professor at Queensland University of Technology (Australia), said. “The viewer gets used to the ability to watch at their own pace. When they’re forced to wait a week for a new episode, it’s a bit of a chore.”
While few traditional networks can match the programming budgets of the streaming standouts, they can at least borrow from the platforms’ playbooks. “It inevitably forces your hand,” Bloxham said. “Any network is thinking, ‘How do we benefit from this change in viewing behavior? Can we get a piece of that pie?’”
For its part, Bravo has tried what it calls a batch release for unscripted “social experiment” series such as Unanchored, about nine friends on a life-changing boat trip, and Welcome to Waverly, about a cadre of urbanites who relocate to a conservative town in Kansas. The whole of Waverly aired Oct. 22-25.
Bravo also made the first episode of Dirty John available online prior to its linear premiere Nov. 25. “I think that allows us to target younger viewers who might not already watch Bravo,” Jerry Leo, executive vice president, program strategy, lifestyle networks, NBCUniversal Cable entertainment and production, said.
More and more, different shows appear to deserve different release strategies. Linda Ong, chief culture officer at marketing agency Civic Entertainment Group, speaks of a “bespoke watch plan” for every series. Ong thinks of a release schedule as a form of marketing. “The business of television has been driven by business priorities,” she said. Increasingly, “it is driven by consumer priorities.”
Weekly, Not Weakly
To be sure, as much as network executives are studying revamped release strategies, weekly program schedules have considerable merits. Traditional networks still enjoy the chatter, be it around the water cooler or on social, about the current episode of a hot show, which takes on a different shape when the whole season lands at once.
Showtime Networks executive vice president of research, program planning and scheduling Kim Lemon said the network’s executives think constantly about sharing more episodes prior to a premiere. As of today, though, they’re not convinced the game plan would work for top-shelf Sunday series such as Billions, SMILF or Ray Donovan. Showtime often makes a premiere available to subscribers and nonsubscribers alike before the show debuts —’80s stock market drama Black Monday, which begins Jan. 20, had episode one on YouTube, Facebook and SHO.com as of Dec. 28 — but isn’t yet ready to make more available.
“The awareness of a show, which drives subscriber value, builds over the course of a season,” Lemon said, pointing to The Chi and Ray Donovan as series that grow viewership week after week. “It’s one of the reasons we’re not abandoning our weekly strategy.”
A cable network chief who asked to be unnamed also mentioned the notion of a network growing viewership by smartly marketing a series throughout its season. The thinking goes that it may be better to amortize the cost of a whole season across several months, instead of a lone day. He also mentioned the holes that would appear on a schedule if an entire season was made live on opening day.
“If you do it all in one weekend, what do you do the next weekend?” the network head asked.
That executive noted the unique experiences on streaming and traditional TV. “People come to the different platforms with different expectations,” the chief said. “Linear TV is a passive experience.”
Set schedules are such an established aspect of television that, even with viewing habits shifting rapidly, weekly releases are unlikely to disappear any time soon. “I don’t think we’re ever going to move away completely from a schedule,” Bloxham said. “But those could be famous last words.”
TBS’s weekend full of Angie Tribeca wasn’t the network’s first scheduling stunt and won’t be its last. Weitz said it’s too early to tell how the move worked out in terms of season four viewership for Angie, but noted that it’s been a win for the TBS brand. “You can’t get complacent anymore,” Weitz said. “There’s too much change happening across the platforms of television.”