The rise of VOD content — challenging traditional TV distribution

For many years the big American networks were the main producers of TV content in the USA. A select few including ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and the CW, produced and aired the bulk of popular US TV shows. However, in recent years cable networks such as HBO, Starz, AMC and Showtime, have begun to eat into this dominance and have subsequently produced some of the most critically and commercially successful programs available.

Now VOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are producing their own content with even greater results. One only has to look at the tremendous success of Netflix’s House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent to see that the future of TV production and airing is radically shifting and quickly.

So how is the landscape changing and what does the future hold for TV production?

  1. It’s About Risk

Historically, the traditional networks have commissioned a dozen or so shows on a pilot basis and the ones with the best ratings were then picked up for a whole season. This reliance on ratings has led to some of the most critically praised and innovative shows being cut short before they were given time to establish themselves. Fox’s Firefly and ABC’s Happy Endings are frequently cited examples and even Family Guy was famously cancelled twice for low ratings until it found its audience.

Why does this happen? Unfortunately it’s due to the network’s appetite for risk. They are so reliant upon ratings, primarily as a source of advertising revenue, that they take very short-term views on TV shows and often cut a show in its infancy in order to avoid potentially losing lucrative TV revenue.

In contrast, Netflix doesn’t even release viewership numbers. The cable networks and VOD platforms are less concerned with ratings as they already have a ‘captive’ audience who have paid for their service and also have less of a need, if at all, for advertising revenue. They can take risks that the main networks are not prepared to take. It’s no surprise then that some of the most beloved shows of recent years (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, House of Cards) have been produced and aired outside of the main US networks.

2. Taking a Long-Term Approach

The cable networks and VOD platforms are also prepared to take a long-term approach by agreeing to commission a full season of episodes before the first season has even been released. The cable network Starz recently commissioned a second season of its own Black Sails before the first episode had aired. This commitment meant that the show’s writers could confidently take a long-term approach to their show and craft storylines over multiple seasons.

This long-term support by the cable networks and VOD platforms gives the writers of such shows the freedom and scope to craft truly unique and engaging content.

3. Being Prepared to Experiment

A trend has emerged and others are following suite with cable networks such as AMC, HBO, Starz, Showtime and USA Network all taking more creative experiments in terms of language, sexuality and violence.

When HBO first produced the pilot of its now hugely successful show Game of Thrones, its producers admitted that the pilot they commissioned was not particularly good. Nevertheless, HBO had such faith in the content that they took a risk and committed to producing a full season of the show. It has become arguably the most popular show on TV (its fourth season had an average gross audience of 18.6 million viewers) and all of its episodes are no less than an hour long. Audiences are willing to invest the time if the content is worth it.

Netflix’s Orange is the New Black features an unknown cast of predominantly multi-racial women with varying sexual orientations and takes place in a women’s prison. It garnered more viewers and hours in its first week than both House of Cards and Arrested Development. This is proof that audiences are ready and willing to take risks in their viewing choices and TV providers who are not willing to do the same are going to fall behind.

4. Changes in How Shows are Commissioned

As previously mentioned the networks traditionally commissioned around a dozen pilots that only senior executives or a handful of selected individuals would see in order to decide whether a show would be commissioned. However, cable networks and VOD platforms are commissioning full seasons without producing a pilot or are making a number of pilots and allowing the general public’s reaction to them decide whether to commission full seasons or not.

Amazon has led the way in this user-generated response to its pilots. They recently released 13 shows that people could see for free on Amazon on-demand then analysed the response of the public and commissioned shows based on demand. The Philip Dick adaptation The Man In The High Castle received a full season order based on stellar reviews and public feedback.

5. How People View Content is Changing

Digital technology streaming provider Piksel recently released a report highlighting how the public are viewing their content across multiple devices in order to avoid commercials and enjoy shows at their own leisurely pace.

Traditionally, viewers have been forced to watch a single episode once a week. VOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon take a radically different approach to their scheduling. Full seasons of shows are available for instant viewing and give audiences the freedom to watch at their own pace.

Rather than being forced to watch content at a fixed time the public are now shifting to watching the content as and when they want to across TV, devices, streaming or other means of viewing. Such changes benefit the networks that have invested in multi-channel technology most effectively.

Conclusion

TV has changed and will continue to do so. Audiences have made it very clear that traditional TV networks will need to learn to adapt in both the content of their shows and the ways they are being released. This is something we are trying to do at FilmDoo (www.filmdoo.com), a platform which I co-founded where we are trying to experiment in the distribution of international and independent film and TV content.

The results are clear and more and more producers are subsequently choosing to move their shows to VOD platforms where they know they are more likely to get a full season order and their writers will get to create the shows they want to make without sacrificing any artistic integrity. Most importantly, it’s a win for viewers. Audiences craving for original, engaging content will increasingly choose VOD platforms where they decide exactly what they want to see, how they want to see it and when.

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