Spoiler Alerts Are The New Black
The day after AMC's Breaking Bad series finale drew 10.3 million American viewers - on live TV! with commercials! - a friend posed a simple query: 'What should I watch next?'
What a phenomenal question. Think about it: we can now consume a nearly limitless archive of entertainment content, when we want it, where we want it. We've gone from 'do you watch?' to 'have you watched?' in less than a decade. Binge watching has replaced appointment viewing. Spoilers are the new enemy number one. And streaming online video is nibbling at television's lunch.
'As television becomes more and more like literature, I'd love to be able to set the book by the nightstand when I want to. It seemed like the natural progression,' says directorDavid Fincher of taking his House of Cards to Netflix as the service's first big original content gambit. Cards was just one of the bestsellers viewers checked out of the Netflix library in 2013; Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove and Orange Is The New Black were all much-lauded.
Netflix's strategy of releasing entire seasons at once disrupts the traditional episodic, seasonal flow of serialised television. Shows sit, ad-free, in perpetuity, waiting for you to tune in at your leisure. And it's not just Netflix. TV tech like Dish Network'sHopper lets viewers skip commercials without a second thought. Streaming services like Aereo and Magine let subscribers cut the cable cord. And online, platforms likeYouTube and HBOGo are changing viewing habits on a daily basis.
Who does this affect? The short answer: everyone. And their mother. This May, The Hangover Part III's opening weekend box office grossed $1m below Hollywood estimates; Arrested Development's fourth season debuted on Netflix at midnight on Saturday, a coincidence surely not lost on Hangover producers. Television networks, content creators, advertisers, sports leagues, mobile device makers, social media users and ratings companies have all been put on notice.
From product placement to companion content, brands are working to stay relevant in environments that minimise interruptions. Among the many-pronged responses, two key strategies emerge: creating content and creating platforms.
Conscious that young viewers are increasingly adept at avoiding ads, brands have taken to the content creation game, whether it's Intel's The Beauty Inside or Nissan's Nismo.tv.
Recently, AT&T has experimented with its @SummerBreak project, which featured nine teenagers in a realtime, social reality show, produced by The Chernin Group. Throughout the summer, @SummerBreak's stars used Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr to keep viewers in the loop on a near-constant basis, while AT&T's crew of 45 editors and producers put together short video 'episodes' that aired on YouTube.
And of course, let's not forget the man who went to the edge of space. Red Bull'sStratos jump, streamed exclusively online, racked up eight million livestreams, all conveniently placed directly beside a big Red Bull logo.
If you build it they will come, the saying goes, and HBO has been working on its field. The subscription network's HBOGo platform has set the bar for cable companionship, giving subscribers free access to shows online or on-the-go at the same time as first run television. Could standalone HBOGo subscriptions be next?
In a similar strain, MLB Advanced Media gambled in 2002 when it launchedMLB.TV. Today, the streaming service boasts three million subscribers, HD-quality feeds and the most successful live sport product on the web. The brand recently began farming out its technology to other organisations interested in streaming content online.
Another Emmy winner blends content and platform; Bravo's Last Chance Kitchen, a serialised companion to Top Chef, airs exclusively on BravoTV.com, and is the most-viewed web series NBCUniversal has ever produced. 'It's very effective from the technical side,' host Tom Colicchio told the LA Times. 'We migrate people from TV to the web seamlessly.'
'Reports of my death were exaggerated'
There's evidence that changing consumption patterns merely reinforce decades-old phenomena. After all, it's easier than ever to catch up on a series with a quick dip into the Netflix waters, bringing viewers to content that may not have otherwise found wide audience.
Said Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan: 'Television has changed a lot in six years. I think Netflix kept us on the air. It's a new era and we've been very fortunate to reap the benefits.'
It is indeed a new era. And while on-demand streaming could serve as a catch-up method that brings more viewers to water-cooler-moment events, it seems to be more exception than rule. Brands are finding ways to reach consumers outside the traditional constraints, through content and platform creation, and viewers are tuning in - whenever, wherever and however they want.
Chris Barth is Staff Writer at Contagious, New York