This post was written by Anna Zhi, a strategy consultant at Jump. You can find her on Twitter @azhyi, or get in touch by commenting on this post.
We are in a new era of media creation and consumption.
To date, The Interview has made $31 million in online and video-on-demand sales since its release right before Christmas—proof that you can successfully release a movie online. In only its second season, Netflix’s House of Cards—an online-only Netflix exclusive—received 13 primetime Emmy award nominations. Its lead man, Kevin Spacey, won his first Golden Globe for best actor in a TV series for his role in House of Cards—more proof that a network can successfully release an online only series. It’s clear that Netflix has emerged as a major cable competitor. In 2014, pay-TV subscriptions recorded their first full year of decline, and studies show that more people are abandoning cable (or never getting it in the first place).
This break from traditional TV means that new occasions around watching TV are proliferating. TiVo, the first behavior changer, allowed consumers to pause and play TV. Now, streaming and downloading means consumers can get entertainment anytime they want it, anywhere they want it. This freedom to watch gives rise to new types of on demand watching behavior, the most infamous of which is binge watching.
Binge watching is a well-known part of popular culture, so much so that scientists are studying the effects of our unconstrained media usage on the body, noting some negative effects. But television is also a positive force—people come home to unwind to sitcoms and enjoy favorite dramas with family. TV networks such as HBO and Showtime have shown that intellectually challenging content is not only successful, but generates customers that are loyal and willing to pay for content.
The amount of intellectual depth in different TV shows falls along a spectrum, from most to least intellectually demanding. Most people watch a variety of content along the spectrum, depending on their mood and appetite for certain types of entertainment, and they usually have habits and preferences for how much of different types of content they want to watch.
On the extreme end of intellectually demanding content are documentaries and other educational programming—content that people watch to better themselves. Next come the hard-hitting, award winning shows, from AMC’s Mad Men to Breaking Bad and, more recently, Netflix’s House of Cards. These are the types of shows where people pause and take a breath after each episode, read analysis, and, like great literature, write essays dissecting all the hidden meaning, layers, and development on every level of the show. These shows are latent with symbolism, meaning, and most of all, detail. To get the full experience, one must actively engage and pay attention to the bigger picture woven throughout the series, as well as the one being painted in the episode. These are not the types of shows meant for multitasking.
Edge down the spectrum a little bit and shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones or Showtime’s Spartucus appear, which have a fairly complex plot and are heavier than many shows, but also contain plenty of gratuitous sex and violence for pure entertainment purposes. Keep going down the spectrum and things become more soap-opera-like—think ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.
Then come sitcoms, the staple for a quick shot of feel-good. They generally reflect and validate the culture and values of their audience. Characters aren’t very complex, plot lines are straight forward even if a few episodes are missed, laughs rely on a set of obvious and beloved motifs, and usually by the end of the episode, everything is the same as it was at the beginning. Everyone has a favorite in this category, shows like CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and ABC’s Modern Family.
Finally come the guilty pleasures, from MTV’s Jersey Shore to 16 and Pregnant. These shows are formulaic, cheap to produce, require little emotional attachment, and are often used as background noise.
For consumers, this breadth of content can easily lead to overconsumption. Perhaps just like the food pyramid, a balance of content across the spectrum is the healthiest option for our content overloaded lifestyle. Everyone has his or her own tastes and preferences, so what exactly does a balanced media palate look like? Two to three heavy hitters, some nightly news and a few sitcoms? Who should be responsible for ensuring that our children consume a variety of content? Parents? Teachers? The government? Or the TV networks themselves?
In a capitalist society where people vote with their wallets, it’s become clear that it’s in networks’ best interests to offer up balanced options for viewing. Here are some lessons to take away in a new era of media consumption:
Just as consumers need balanced consumption, so too should networks provide balanced offerings. A media analyst recently called HBO “one of the most successful growth businesses in all [of] media.” That’s no accident in a time when consumers are choosing to pay for content from the more intellectually stimulating side of the spectrum and downloading other shows.
For networks, it’s no longer enough to make just sitcoms—they need to specialize and be known for a certain type of content that people will pay for, with other potential options and a more balanced spread across the spectrum. Produce a mix of content so the audience doesn’t get overwhelmed or bored. Networks need to care about how much intellectual depth their audiences consume if they want paying customers.
Certain shows are meant to be enjoyed in certain ways. Produce and release accordingly. The greater the information and artistry, the more intentional we should be about how we watch our shows. Binge watching may work for some, but in many cases, it actually decreases overall enjoyment around watching shows. Sitcoms may be fine for binge watching, but deeper and darker shows aren’t. Binge watching cuts out the time for meaning to sink in and analysis to happen, ruining the effect of cliffhangers and intentional pauses between seasons.
Networks need to take into account how consumers are most likely to watch depending on the medium. Where, when, and how a show is released will determine if people get together to throw a party to watch, stay up all night, or watch intermittently during a commute. Produce and release content in the manner most conducive to its consumption. Different content needs to be consumed in different ways.
Heavy-hitting content is here to stay. People are able to vote for the type of content they want with their clicks and their wallet. With the success of HBO, Netflix, and more recently, Amazon’s exclusive shows, viewers are showing that they want real content that is thought provoking and says something about our society. People are willing to subscribe and pay for more substantive content.
With high quality content, people are more likely to want to view it in a high quality setting, so they’ll dish out some money for the real version instead of a blurry low res one. Let consumers vote with their viewing. The most successful (HBO et al.) networks are already doing this. With cable on its way out, the rest of the big networks need to follow suit.
Offering up a spectrum of options for consumers will help ensure that networks have a sustainable audience to which they can continue offering content. The booming success of HBO, Showtime, and others proves as much. As consumers continue selecting the content they want, it’s only a matter of time before those networks that offer only certain types of content will die out.
Networks such as MTV, TLC and Cooking Channel are already struggling and attempting to produce more intellectually demanding content. Balanced consumption should be an integral element in any media company’s product strategy today.