Traditional TV channels: swimming against the stream

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Image courtesy of Paul Saku

Television is dying whilst simultaneously reaching new heights. Perhaps I should rephrase: traditional television is dying. The days of planning your life around network schedules for fear of missing your favourite show, are long gone. The 21st century has become the decade of convenience and TV is perhaps most representative of this.

It’s hard to determine exactly where the decline in the traditional method of watching television started. Perhaps it was when services like Sky+, Tivo and DVR boxes became commercially viable and widely available. Having to sit through an ad break after a big reveal in Lost started to become unthinkable.

Of course Sky+ launched over a decade ago so they can’t really be to blame for the decline in the viewers of traditional television networks. The real culprit is a little service known as Netflix, and by little I mean behemoth that is single handedly responsible for around a third of all US internet traffic.

It’s not the typical network-produced shows that are available to stream instantly on Netflix that have the channel big-wigs running scared, it’s Netflix’s original programs. It’s hard to argue the quality of such original hits as  House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and whilst Netflix doesn’t release total viewing numbers, industry predictions using internet traffic stats suggest they have a viewer base most network executives can only dream off.

It’s easy to look at network juggernauts such as The Walking Dead (AMC) and Game of Thrones (HBO) and claim that traditional television is alive and thriving, but that would be false. These shows are very much the exception, not the rule. And HBO are even restructuring their on-demand service purely because of how many people are choosing watch Game of Thrones online illegally – people would obviously prefer to watch something when it suits them, and that’s exactly what Netflix is about.

In the UK, networks such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have all launched their own on-demand services in order to stay up to date. Perhaps more telling is that all three of them have experimented with putting shows up on these services before they air on television. How many people sit at home to watch The Apprentice on a Wednesday night at 9pm rather than watch it on the BBC iPlayer when they have a free hour?

It’s not just Netflixthat is putting out its own original programs. Amazon Instant Video (which launched earlier this year in the UK) has crafted an interactive system allowing subscribers to vote on which original series should be picked up for a full season. Yahoo recently announced it would be carrying on the cult classic series Community after it was cancelled by US network NBC, similarly to what Netflix did with Arrested Development. Television networks have never faced such large and high quality competition.

The phrase “I’ll just wait for it to come to Netflix” hasn’t yet become commonplace, but it’s likely to. Netflix recently announced it would have the first series of Batman prequel Gotham just days after it finished its traditional television airing. This has led to an “I’ll wait” sentiment across the internet, because why sit through endless advertisements and the frustration of waiting a week for the next episode when you can just binge-watch the whole series, ad free, only a few months later?

We’re barely two months into the autumn 2014 television season, which is when shows tend to premiere at least in the US, and it’s already been a bloodbath. A to Z (NBC), Bad Judge (NBC), Selfie (ABC) and Utopia (FOX) have all debuted to appalling ratings and swiftly been cancelled. Yet Netflix has announced this month that they will be adapting Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events into a series.

Perhaps acclaimed director David Fincher (who directed the first episode of House of Cards) put it best when he said “The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead. A stake has been driven through its heart.” More and more people are turning on their tablets and computers every to watch new shows, whereas less and less people are turning on their TV sets. It’s only a matter of time before the traditional means of distributing television shows is laid to rest.