July 9, 2015

Dog Days of Summer

This summer has witnessed an unusual phenomenon — two to be exact. The first: networks are launching a spate of new series during the summer months, which are usually consigned to reruns. The second: even though these new shows are debuting to some fairly dismal ratings, the networks appear blissfully unconcerned. In fact, USA Network actually renewed its summer offering, Mr. Robot, before the show even made its official debut.

So are the network bosses getting a bit too much sun, or is there something else afoot?

What’s happening is the dawning realization that linear ratings are only a part of the equation. If shows can build audiences online and if those viewers become serious fans, that’s ultimately far more valuable than a few ratings points.

Many of the new series were introduced online first, long before their official network debut. The aforementioned Mr. Robot, for example, has been available on a wide range of sites, from Amazon and Hulu to iTunes, YouTube, and Xbox. So the low numbers on opening night might not have been much of an issue. USA executives are likely waiting to see what the online numbers look like. For a series aimed at Millennials, these numbers may take a while to manifest.

And, of course, it is summertime. The sun is out late, we’re busy doing things outdoors, going on vacation, enjoying the weather — we don’t have time to sit inside and watch TV on someone else’s preordained schedule.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean we won’t eventually catch up with the shows we want to see. We may do it evenings at a lake house in Maine, or at 10:30 PM when we’ve finally come inside and settled down for the night. Maybe even in September when the nights start getting cooler. The pressure to watch TV when it first airs has been slowly but surely abating — there’s so much good TV nowadays, it’s almost impossible to stay on top of all of it (hence the binge watching phenomenon which we examined here last week).

So what do we give up with this sea change in viewing habits? We lose the national “water cooler conversation” the next morning. Or do we? People consume books and movies according to their own schedules, and yet those mediums manage to be part of our water cooler chats. Same for TV: we may not all watch the same show at 8 PM Wednesdays, but chances are good that, by the end of the week, there will be someone else around to discuss it.

As for the networks, the fragmented patterns of summer viewers makes it all the more necessary for them to harness dedicated fan bases; to use them — and the data collected about them — to fuel advertising and other revenue. One avenue may be digital syndication, as shows with dedicated fan bases will always draw sizable audiences. Another is using digital platforms to sell more targeted ads (i.e., audience parting rather than day parting) now that they have better data about who their viewers are and where and when they are watching.

Higher live ratings may never happen for many of these new shows, because their Millennial audience no longer watches live TV. But if these shows are able to attract dedicated fan bases — regardless of when, where, and on what device — and the networks are able to monetize those fans, it should be a happy summer for everyone, networks, show-runners and viewers alike.

Alan Wolk is one of the industry’s most influential thought leaders and futurists. He writes frequently on advertising models, OTT and social TV.

Sign Up for Weekly Analyst Insights

Recent Insights