Television is booming, but timeslots are fading

9:11 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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By Mark Lieberman
USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent

The broadcast television networks enthusiastically unveiled their fall and spring programming schedules at a series of upfront presentations for advertisers this week. For some college students, however, the very idea of a television schedule is all but irrelevant.

With DVR and online streaming alternatives, younger viewers are watching fewer TV shows when they originally air.

Rob Zajdel, 19, says he used to watch more shows live when he was in high school. Now, the Susquehanna University junior's busy schedule at college sends him to catch up on the networks' websites or streaming services, such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

Mary Guenther, 18, says the network schedule is "completely irrelevant" to her and she only pays attention to it so she knows when her favorite shows will appear online.

"I largely watch on Hulu," says the American University sophomore.

Alyssa Rosenberg, a culture critic for ThinkProgress, attributes these modern habits to the structure of the network television season, which stretches from September to May. The now-antiquated network model required shows to produce new episodes every week, but television episodes have become too costly and creatively demanding for this model to be feasible.

Instead, networks plug holes in the schedule with repeats, which send viewers clamoring for alternative programming on cable or online.

"Schedules have become fungible," Rosenberg says. "If networks want to make timeslots work, they need to be more predictable."

Nonetheless, Rosenberg says networks can't realistically abandon the traditional schedule.

"Advertisers care about viewers in the timeslot," she says.

Live viewership is not entirely a relic, though.

"If there's a show with a really big social aspect," Guenther says, citing Pretty Little Liars as an example, "I'll watch it live."

Social media presence has become imperative for a show's success, Rosenberg says. Fans of Shonda Rhimes' hot ABC drama Scandal, for instance, often prefer to watch the show live while engaging with fellow fans on social media. The show has been the subject of over 3.7 million tweets this season, according to an ABC press release. The interaction enhances the viewing experience, and live viewers don't have to worry about their friends spoiling the episode later.

Zajdel agrees. With shows like The Voice, "it's fun to go on Twitter and see what other people are saying," he says. Although many viewers are turning to DVR, Hulu and online streaming, Rosenberg says the networks are still experimenting with ways to attract viewers to their shows as they air.

Fox limited the first season of The Following to fifteen episodes this spring, accommodating ratings-draw Kevin Bacon's busy schedule and allowing the entire season to run weekly without interruption.

NBC split the first season of its hit drama Revolution into two distinct blocks of episodes with a four-month hiatus in between to limit repeats and build anticipation.

Even with these tweaks, weekly viewing is no longer paramount.

NBC, for instance, has recently taken into account delayed viewing for as many as seven days when touting their shows' ratings.

"The streaming ecosystem is a very dynamic space right now," says Rosenberg.

Hulu is the most convenient and legal place for viewers to watch network programs shortly after they air, Rosenberg says. But Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and other streaming services also offer the possibility of binge-watching after a season or more has already aired.

With all of these available options, the traditional network schedule is just one piece in a much larger puzzle.

"The business model hasn't necessarily evolved," Rosenberg says.

Viewing habits will continue to do so, however, and the networks may have no choice but to re-evaluate.

Mark Lieberman is a summer 2013 Collegiate Correspondent. Learn more about him here.

USA Today

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