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Cable Technology Feature Article

February 19, 2013

What Can Cabelcos Do in the Post-Watercooler TV Era?

By Tara Seals, TMCnet Contributor

You know how it used to be back when there were only three for-profit national broadcast networks and no such thing as video-on-demand (VOD)—as a nation we watched the nightly news together as one, and waited patiently for weekly installments of our favorite primetime shows. TV was linear and part of the very fabric of our identity as Americans. Who didn’t have the “Who Shot J.R.” bumper sticker? Who didn’t discuss the M*A*S*H finale around the water-cooler at work the next day?

That M*A*S*H episode remains to this day the No. 1-rated television event of all time by percentage of the population, even when taking into account sports events like various Super Bowls. A full 60.2 percent of households in the United States tuned in for the Feb. 1983 ending to the series. The Dallas episode answering the question of who did indeed shoot J.R. Ewing (answer: his lover, Kristin, who happened to be pregnant with his baby) comes in second place, with 53.3 percent of households tuning in in Nov. 1980.

But let’s be honest: Those days are over. It’s no newsflash that viewing models are radically changing, spurred on by an explosion of cable networks, options for time-shifted viewing, video-on-demand (VOD) and over-the-top (OTT) streaming, and even, arguably, the rise of DVD sales of full seasons of popular shows. But the fact remains that cable operators aren’t adequately prepared for the shift.

Add insult to injury with the fact that Netflix is taking the idea to what some say is a radical extreme with the decision to launch all episodes of its original series programming at the same time, for viewing whenever someone decides that it’s convenient. The first test-drive for that is the House of Cards, a D.C. drama of political intrigue starring Kevin Spacey. The streaming giant sees the move to such a strategy as having the potential to disrupt not just how we view, but what we view and how content is produced.

Eventually TV “might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause,” Beau Willmon, the head writer of House of Cards, told the New York Times.

To put it in perspective, the vast majority of TV viewing (95 percent) still takes place within seven days of a show being initially aired, according to Nielsen. But the ability to watch marathons of TV—binge viewing, as it’s known—only increases the fragmentation of viewing habits within the TV ecosystem. Watercooler conversation is no longer dominated by, “did you see the finale last night?” The question is more likely to lead with “Spoiler alert…” with the understanding that many people will be catching up with the content later. “Beyond 7” viewing—i.e., those watching content outside of the one-week-after-airing window is beginning to affect ratings, Nielsen pointed out. And therefore operator revenue models.

For pay-TV operators, understanding what does bring us together, all at the same time, has become a linchpin when it comes to investing in content rights. Live news events, awards shows and sports of course win out—and it’s no surprise that the latter two are the most expensive in terms of content carriage fees that pay-TV operators pay (and in terms of cost of advertising) because they are by definition things we have to watch as-they-happen.

The State of the Union address for instance drew a healthy 33.5 million TV viewers, while the Grammys drew 38 million.

But sports is the indisputable head of the kingdom. In terms of raw numbers of viewers, despite the population surge since the 1980s, M*A*S*H was only usurped as the most-watched broadcast of all time in 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl and nipped M*A*S*H’s nearly 106 million viewer record by drawing in 106.5 million fans.

The 2013 Super Bowl showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and the victorious Baltimore Ravens was the third-most watched television event in American history, with 108.41 million viewers tuning in. Percentage-wise, one out of every two televisions in the country was watching the game, making it the second-highest-rated Super Bowl in 27 years—behind last year’s event.

But that isn’t enough to save the cable model. Video subs are fleeing the cable ranks, indicating that the dogged instance on seeing content delivery in traditional terms is not going to be a winning strategy in the long term. Because we don’t have a Super Bowl every week, the question has become, what will bring us together on a regular basis? Cable operators need to consider that the answer to that is perhaps, “nothing.” But while the watercooler phenomenon may be a thing of the sepia-toned past, cable operators can still create the foundation for delivering and managing compelling new revenue-generating services that speak to the American psyche.

That means that pay TV operators must shift their own value proposition to not just align their economic models and investments with time-shifted offerings, but also to communicate the value of personalization to viewers.

The next phase for cable MSOs must be to satisfy consumer preference for personalized, multidevice service packages and viewing flexibility, with innovative and dynamic offerings that put the consumer in control of their communications experience. Most are embracing TV Everywhere and catch-up VOD offerings already, and some are rolling out second-screen functionality in the form of social TV apps and the like for tablets. But offering the ability for users to, say, create their own profiles that take into account the devices owned by the consumer and the content that’s available across DVR, OTT, VOD and linear sources may well be the next key to widespread consumer engagement. Combine that with the ability to sell targeted, multiscreen advertising across networks, and fears over the death of the three-network living room engagement model seem increasingly outdated.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey

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