As the binge-watch phenomenon starts to fade, is it time to re-deploy broadcasting’s most potent and enduring weapon – scheduling?
In response to the rise of the Streamers, super-charged by global lockdowns, linear broadcasters have been taking a ‘digital first’ approach, demanding that producers deliver content with ‘streamability’ baked in. But ‘streamability’ – a word that strikes dread into the hearts of creators – depends first and foremost on binge-watching.
The primary aim of linear broadcasters is to provide advertisers with maximum eyeballs – and therefore revenue – for the smallest possible spend. The primary aim of a Streamer is to attract and retain viewers for as many continuous hours as possible. In other words, to binge-watch. But that model is beginning to fail.
As The UK’s Observer newspaper reported this week, Netflix is forecasting “just 2.5 million new subscribers globally in the first quarter, its worst start to a year in over a decade”. In 2021 “it added the fewest subscribers since 2015. Rattled investors, focused on subscriber growth, have wiped almost $300bn off the combined market value of the two giants (Netflix and Disney+) since last year’s highs.” In November, TV antenna provider Mohu reported that more than 44% of Americans plan to cut at least one cable or streaming service in next 6 months. Less time to spend viewing, and less available income to pay for it, is changing habits fast.
So at a time when binge-watching is creaking and straining like an airship in a gathering storm, why would linear broadcasters abandon the benefits of scheduling?
Scheduled slots create an appointment to view. Instead of floating in a sea of variable and often pre-cancelled content, scheduled shows are anchored to a time and in a place that defines their status and finds their natural audience. New shows are supported by established programming placed before and after. Yes, ratings during the new show often dip, but not too much (the ‘tightrope effect’) and a regular slot encourages co-viewing, in the family but also in the extended audience. And that creates conversation.
Scheduled seasons can be set to reflect the wider world – there is a reason The Great British Bake Off (pictured) is shot in the golden glow of summer, but released in the gloom and chill of autumn. Regular episode-release creates a longer run, which has two key advantages. It gives the broadcaster time to build a strong marketing campaign and therefore audience, and it enables viewers to speculate and chat between episodes.
Above all, scheduling makes live TV possible. And nothing equals the power of a live talent or reality competition. It is no coincidence how live TV has been a big part of linear broadcasters’ fight-back against the streamers.
If you think about it, almost every aspect of ‘streamability’ – front-loaded noise, short runs, elaborate hooks, minimal or no hosts, overpaid celebrities – is a direct response to disadvantages of having no schedule. Add in linear TV’s other advantages – home-grown familiar faces, longevity for successful formats – and digital first doesn’t feel like the answer to everything.
So it’s no surprise that scheduling is far from dead. As my colleague and podcast co-host David Bodycombe points out, look at HBO Max dropping all its new content weekly, or the fully-scheduled Pluto TV. Look at Disney+ and Amazon Prime dropping hit shows weekly. Look at YouTube and Twitch, where Gen Z understand and embrace the value of a well-timed and regular drop. Look at Fortnite, with its 13-week quarterly seasons and weekly live release of exclusive new content for players to get excited about and share.
If BBC Three can embrace the best of scheduling by re-learning an ‘ancient’ art and reinventing it through Gen Z’s learned experience, then the days of spending more time looking for content than actually watching it may be over.
Justin Scroggie is a TV content specialist, known internationally as The Format Doctor. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, followed on Twitter via @TheFormatDoctor, and heard regularly on the popular podcast TV Show And Tell, which he co-hosts with games producer David Bodycombe.