It's hard to believe that it was less than a year ago that Apple launched the video Ipod and the ABC television group was the first to announce a serious commitment to make its top rated television shows accessible to consumers via legal downloads. Within a few weeks time, the other networks were forced to cut their own deals with Apple paving the way of a new era of rerun on demand. A document shared with me recently from one of our corporate research partners gave me a glimpse into just how dramatically the landscape of American television has changed, providing a breakdown network by network of the various platforms through which one could access their content.
ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all make at least some of their series available for download through iTunes, as do 41 different cable networks.
ABC has been experimenting this summer with ad-supported (i.e. free) downloads of episodes of Commander in Chief, Grey's Anatomy, and Lost at ABC.com and plans to extend the service to include a range of other series this fall.
CBS has launched a similar service over at Intertube -- for example, my wife and I have been catching up this week on a full season of episodes of Big Brother: All-Stars -- and the network has already announced that people will be able to download free episodes of Jericho, NCIS, and the various CSI series the day after they are aired. The other major networks are so far only offering streaming clips and news reports, not yet full episodes. The free episodes come with commercials embedded but so far, it is relatively easy to scan past them.
Several of the major networks are producing extensions of their regular series specifically for those accessing via these other platforms: NBC, for example, is offering mobisodes of The Office via NBC.com; ABC has a special behind the scenes podcast for Lost and will soon be adding Lost Video Diary, which focus on secondary and rarely seen characters for those watching on mobile phones.
All of the major networks are doing at least some experiments making content available via mobile devices, including deals by ABC (with Verizon), Fox (with Sprint and Verizon), and NBC (with Verizon).
CBS is making content available via both Yahoo.com and Google Video; Fox via MySpace and CinemaNow; NBC via YouTube.
All of this points towards a world where consumers can watch the content they want when they want it and where they want it and they can do so with a range of different options from paying to watch advertising free content to watching advertising-supported content for free. Not every show is available in all formats yet. Most of the networks are testing a few platforms at a time. They are still offering only selected series. But there's no question at this point that these various platforms are going to be increasingly central to the ways we watch television.
The cable networks have been even quicker to embrace these alternative media platforms -- though there is some tension between the network's desires to reach the broadest possible public (including many who simply do not have access to the networks via their local cable companies) and the affiliate's desire to have exclusive access to content which they can sell to their subscribers.
Some see these trends as representing the next step towards the disagregation of television content -- that is to say, consumers will follow individual series with little regard to their time slots or network placements. For some of us, that moment is already here. I have students who never watch live television, prefering to download everything they watch (legally or otherwise). In my own case, I am moving more slowly in this direction. I got started watching highlights of The Daily Show on the web because the MIT dorms don't get Comedy Central. I ended up watching the season finale of Survivor via CBS's website later the same day because I was traveling when it first aired. I ended up watching most of Season 2 Lost via various downloads (mostly legal). And as mentioned earlier, I am now catching up with Big Brother since I was without television reception most of the summer and people had told me it was one of the better runs of the series. (Indeed, having seen most of the episodes, I would agree).
Rerun in Demand is the logical response to the increased serialization of American television: we've seen over the past decade more and more shows which have tightly interwoven plots, extended story arcs, recurring emphasis on backstory and program history. Such series reward regular viewing and punish people who miss episodes. Such episodes historically were considered high risk by networks. They could lose viewers who became disinterested but they were hard to join in progress and old style broadcasting gave viewers no way to go back and see what they missed. Tivo provided viewers with some tools to stay on top of series they were watching thanks to the season pass feature but they offered no good way to go back and join an ongoing series until, minimally, the end of the season, when the episodes might be available on DVD. Often, the DVD sets have come out at the very end of the summer or even into the fall, making it hard to catch up before the second season episodes started to air. This season, a high percentage of the new series have story arc structures: indeed, many of them seem designed to last a single season or less. We should be watching to see if any of them benefit from the combination of word of mouth via the web and alternative ways of accessing previously aired materials? Will some of them experience increases in viewership as the season moves forward? And if so, which ones?
As I was finishing this post, I received a link to an interesting story about SciFi Channel developing a web series to generate interest around Battlestar Gallactica. Here's what the New York Times had to say about it:
The 10 Web segments, each just a few minutes long and viewable on devices ranging from iPods to laptops to desktops to full-size television sets, feature characters from the television show. And they have the same dark feel of broadcast episodes of Galactica, a post-apocalyptic survival tale of humans on the run after their home planets have been destroyed. The mini-episodes will go online, one at a time, on Tuesday and Thursday nights until "Galactica's" season premiere on Oct. 6. They focus on two soldiers in a new city built by humans fleeing Cylons, a race of machines that has wiped out human civilization elsewhere. The two face difficult choices about how -- or whether -- to fight back against a new Cylon invasion, the climactic moment of last season. Their decisions will help explain their actions in future on-air episodes.
This sounds like a classic example of what my book calls transmedia storytelling -- the use of the web not to remediate existing content from the series but to develop an extension of the fictional world which enhances our experience of watching the series. I am not watching this particular series but would be interested to hear from fans of the series about their impressions of what these web-based episodes bring to the experience.