For Networks, Binge Isn’t The Only Answer

While on-demand streaming services have been dominating the entertainment world, cable networks still have an opportunity to innovate and reimagine the TV customer experience.

Let’s talk about Shark Week…

Since its premiere in 1988, Shark Week has become the longest-running programming event in cable television history. In a pre-on-demand world, counting down the days to Shark Week and staying glued to your couch was essential for staying connected to every other shark enthusiast at school or work. For the network, Shark Week was an advertising goldmine. For shark fans, it gave them a significant media event to look forward to each year. And for sharks, it eventually led them to renowned entertainment milestones like Sharknado.

Looked at critically, Shark Week is an interesting place to start thinking about the current state of TV viewership for several reasons. First, it proves binge-watching habits are hard-wired into our brains. Not only do we want to immerse ourselves in a story episode after episode, but we are also drawn to the hype, and we fear missing out on something the world will soon be talking about. Secondly, regularly scheduled programming gave TV networks full control over when and how their content would be viewed by the viewers. Lastly, and most significantly for the networks, this let them justify higher-cost ad space during periods of spiked viewership, like Shark Week.

A Study On Binge Behavior

We’ve worked with some of the top networks in the industry, and have found through immersive research that the path forward for TV networks isn’t as treacherous as it seems. Our team spent hours observing how TV viewers consume content in their homes, at work, or on-the-go, and gathered a deep understanding of what daily entertainment binging looks like across a spectrum of real-life people.

Carefully considering the habits, needs, and expectations of TV viewers, while also balancing the very real needs a network has to stay in business through advertising revenue, led us to three conclusions that complete a picture of what a holistically designed network TV solution can look like.

A research externalization exercise designed to map the various ways someone consumes content in their home.

Viewers want the best of both worlds.

Think back to Thursday nights in the 90s. NBC’s Must See TV was a golden era of prime-time content for viewers, where audiences launched shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and ER into the television history books. Media coverage for the season and series finales of Friends and Seinfeld drew record-breaking audiences in their final years, during the height of the watch-party and Friday watercooler-conversation era. Communities of fans thriving on the weekly anticipation flourished — just as they did around annual Shark Week programming — but the weekly cadence meant NBC could charge advertisers small fortunes for ad spots worth their time in gold each week, rather than just once a year.

Today, the game has changed. With full seasons of shows dropping all at once, the new-normal is total immersion. Watching full seasons (or entire series) in a day or over a weekend creates a more intimate TV viewing experience that gives the viewer control over how quickly they take to consume all the content a show has available. This is great for individuals but comes at the price of longer-term engagement and the communities once built around shows and networks by the traditional episodic drop model.

What if you could take the best of both models, and make an even better viewing experience?

We tested a model that drops the first three episodes of a season at once, getting viewers hooked and allowing them to immerse themselves in a show’s content. Beyond the first three episodes, a weekly drop model can be designed to capitalize on the anticipation that’s built once a viewer gets hooked. HBO recently adopted this model for the season 3 premiere of True Detective, dropping the show’s first two episodes back-to-back. Creating an episode drop model that takes advantage of the immersive storytelling of binge-watching and the anticipation and social value that the weekly drop model brings will give viewers and networks the best of both worlds. Get people hooked, then engage them with week-to-week releases.

Viewers also want the most direct and seamless point of entry when looking for content.

Whether through backstories, spin-offs, or behind the scenes features, viewers want more than just a 30-minute or hour-long episode of their favorite shows. Couple that with a culture that demands instant gratification, and you get TV viewers that want all the content, all the time. And if you have a digital experience — like an app or streaming site — viewers expect those experiences to be continually feeding them personalized and relevant content based on their preferences and viewing history. If viewers have to dig for content, they’ll look someplace else.

Portable devices create an ideal platform for short-form content.

Content providers must create platforms that learn from a viewer’s behavior and surface personalized and relevant content when it’s expected. Take advantage of a viewer’s appetite for additional content from their favorite shows and characters, and explore new ways of telling stories across traditional TV channels. Engaging short-form content that’s accessible on the web, on mobile, or through social media meets the user where they are and leads to long-form engagement.

A content-forward re-design concept for

Break the ad model to increase revenue and produce more content.

It’s common to think that binge-watching increases a viewer’s watch time per session, but we found during our research that binge-behavior actually has a negative impact on engagement with advertising; secondary research validated our findings. Interrupting the viewing experience with advertising is proven to discourage binge behavior. In fact, advertising engagement tends to peak at three episodes, and viewers become less responsive to ads over longer viewing sessions. This throws a wrench in traditional network viewing models that rely heavily on advertising. It also materially changes how networks monetize their content. In response to these new viewing options, networks have to rethink their strategy and take a holistic approach to how they get content into the hands of their consumers if they want to continue to be in the business of producing and delivering content.

Our recommended model for optimal advertising.

Instead of periodic bombardment, reduce the number of ads a viewer sees the longer they’re engaged with content. The tests we ran with advertisements following this pattern saw a drastically decreased viewing drop-off. Another critical drop-off point is during the time between the end of one episode and the start of the next. Removing ads from the space between episodes prevents viewers from getting distracted and moving on to something else, and keeps them engaged longer.

Re-thinking the ad model this way reduces the total number of ads a viewer sees and increases the value of each ad space. Not only are viewers staying engaged longer, but advertisers are also paying more for that premium ad time. As a result, the ads are converting better. Everybody wins.

For cable networks to stay competitive in an on-demand world, they must evolve and adapt. Rather than staying bound to traditional content delivery models or trying to mimic what streaming services provide, there are ways to change the rules of the game and come out even farther ahead in the hearts of TV viewers and on the balance sheets of advertisers. Producing insights like these through in-depth user research is just one small part of our process at Handsome. If you’re curious to learn more, we’re happy to share.

Written by Adam Deutsch, Co-Founder and Head of Product Design at Handsome, and Matt DeMartino, Head of Marketing and Brand at Handsome.