Streaming and Scattering: The Limits of “Tribal” TV
As the battle for hearts and minds (and eyes) in the new TV universe heats up, the question is whether new delivery possibilities truly spell the end of TV as we know it.
In the last few months, the spasmodic evolution of Internet TV has lurched forward again with Apple^1, Sony^2, HBO^3 and ESPN^4, (to name just a few), announcing or launching streaming-video-on-demand (SVOD) services. These new offerings are entering an increasingly crowded space, dominated by three major players – Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu – who are changing many of the rules that have defined TV and that, in the past, have made it a cultural lightning rod.
As the three mega-players have evolved from being distributors to full-fledged studios, viewers have acquired new habits like binge-watching (according to a recent Greenberg survey, only about four in 10 people still prefer watching their favorite shows live), have been privy to more offbeat content that mainstream network television would not have otherwise delivered (e.g., Transparent), and now seem to be facing a total reformation of how they watch (fragmented, non-linear, on-demand, versus contemporaneous appointment viewing). As new players enter the market, the question is whether the redefinition of TV will continue in these directions, or stay rooted in the values from which it emerged.
The Big Bang Effect In the new SVOD universe, it seems that the Big Bang approach (release it all at once) is the harbinger of a technology-driven culture meme, where the formation of “mini-tribes” of people watching different shows on different platforms and different devices is the norm. Since the inaugural release of Netflix’s House of Cards, “binge-watching” has been a buzzword for the pinnacle of non-linear SVOD TV: watch a show when you want, for a more intense experience and a deeper connection to the program.
In this universe, “appointment television” is obsolete; how people watch TV programs will never be the same again. “New technology is making traditional media a thing of the past.” “Live TV is dead.” And so on. You get the picture.
But in making these kinds of predictions, SVOD futurists are ignoring one of the fundamental characteristics that shaped the birth and evolution of TV: tapping into a zeitgeist. “Concurrent TV” forms stronger social connections among people, and taps into a larger cultural and societal ethos. The implication is that there is greater cultural (not just tribal) engagement in releasing content episodically, rather than delivering it all at once.
Campfire TV and its Lessons For a New SVOD Universe In the new media landscape, roles will continue to blur: distributors are becoming content creators (Netflix, Vimeo), content creators are becoming direct distributors (HBO, CBS) and aggregators are creating multiple delivery models, (Comcast, Apple, Sony PlayStation). It’s also true that SVOD addresses specific needs, providing the opportunity for an à-la-carte, customized TV diet. But there are other important lessons that new SVOD entrants can gain from understanding the human need for episodic content.
Take the success of the Fox TV show Empire. At a time when traditional prime-time TV shows are supposedly over and done with, Empire increased its ratings every week after its premiere – the first show to have done so in 20 years.^5 The series finale on March 18th, generated live ”Empire Watch” shows, with people leaving the comfort of their living room sofas to huddle around flat-screen TVs in public venues.^6 In a new SVOD universe, huddling around “campfire TV” just might suggest that there is a craving among viewers to have content to coalesce around, and use as a means to connect with others.
The events that make the largest splashes and turn into phenomena are unifying experiences that people flock to and remember afterwards. These include season finales (think Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead), award shows (The Oscars®, the Golden Globe Awards®), and of course, live sports. Time specificity is a big part of what creates “appointment viewing” – a window in which everyone is watching simultaneously. By contrast, in a non-linear SVOD TV universe, you don’t always view at the exact same time. With such media fragmentation, people get into totally different orbits. You may connect with your close group of friends about the shows you’re watching, but you won’t be connecting at a larger societal level.
Story Arc as Viewer Glue Other recent examples of the power of the episode include the Serial podcast (its download numbers rivaled the ratings of some big cable networks) and the recent HBO documentary The Jinx. Both offered something new: a single murder case, investigated over multiple, hour-long episodes.
Besides being true-crime docudramas, what made them so compelling was that they became transcendent experiences for their fans. Basically, we were all detectives together. The types of conversations they spurred online, in print articles, and at the proverbial water cooler, indicated a hunger for this kind of watch-it-now programming. Again, it is another indication – in a fragmented TV universe – of the need to connect to the bigger zeitgeist.
All-You-Can-Eat TV is a Smaller Universe While binge-watching via SVOD still enables the need to connect socially, it exists on a much smaller scale. How many House of Cards discussions have you been involved in since Season Three came out in late February? Judging from the scale of discourse relative to Season One, it’s not really part of the cultural conversation, because everyone is watching it on different timelines.
When it comes to non-linear, fragmented SVOD viewing, there’s a built-in limit to how much social connection can actually happen beyond your immediate circle of friends. Your “mini-tribe” will stay forever small, and so will the impact of that discussion.
Zeitgeist Trumps Technology In the new SVOD universe, there are many new (and occasionally, irrationally exuberant) prognostications about what will define TV 2.0. But in the end, what people love about TV is that it’s a way for them to connect and to feel connected. The success of “traditional” programs like Empire and meta dramas like The Jinx speak to the hunger people have for cultural anchors in their lives.
For marketers and new SVOD players eyeing the role of content creator, it’s an important lesson: Shows that fulfill our true tribal needs to come together around time-stamped stories create more fiercely devoted audiences and stimulate national conversations. The barriers that platform fragmentation is creating for people to find these opportunities are not insignificant. (but that's another article). What is worth remembering here is that the human need to connect to cultural conversations, not technology, is ultimately what defines and creates great TV.
^1 “HBO’s New Streaming Service, HBO Now, Exclusive To Apple At Launch”, Sara Perez, TechCrunch, March 9, 2015.
^2 “PlayStation Vue Review: A Real Rival to Cable TV… For a Price”, Geoffrey Fowler, Wall Street Jouranal Online, March 24, 2015
^3 “Here's When HBO Plans To Launch Its Standalone Streaming Service”, Jessica Rawden, Cinema Blend, November, 2014
^4 “ESPN will be available through a streaming service, no cable required”, Cecilia Kang, The Washington Post, January 5, 2015; URL:
^5 “Empire Is a Massive Hit. Here’s What Its Success Could Mean for the TV Business.”, Josef Adalian, Vulture, January 28, 2015
^6 “Swagger On Display At 'Empire' Season Finale Parties”, Bilal Qureshi, NPR.com, March 19, 2015