THE audience has gone. But you suspected that. Sitting in your lounge room watching repeats of tired comedy series, you feel the loneliness. Everyone else has left the couch of passive entertainment. You’ve heard them gossiping about the Red Wedding ( Game of Thrones). You’ve wondered about all the talk about the ostrich farm ( Arrested Development) and some of your friends are fretting that Breaking Bad will, indeed, end badly because the writer cried as he wrapped it up. But you weren’t there. You were stuck on the couch of network television wondering exactly when the rest of the audience left.
Ask anyone under the age of 30 what they’re watching and there’s a good chance it’s not what you’re watching. They’re not even watching it on a TV set. And they’re certainly not viewing to a schedule.
Take binge TV. As the name suggests, binge TV is about consuming a huge number of episodes of your favourite program in one sitting. It’s the preferred way of watching edgy series such as Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, House of Cards, Homeland and Game of Thrones. Binge TV is like lining up shots. You super-size your serial consumption and boasting rights belong to those who can sit on the couch long enough for the sun to rise on their obsession. It’s what happens when there’s a lot of cheap TV available anywhere, anytime. You start and you just can’t stop. It’s a whopper. Do you want fries with that?
But there’s also another new audience, the picky flicker. Picky flickers may be sitting in front of a TV set but they’ll have a computer, tablet or phone on their lap and their attention is divided between chat, games, screen TV and streamed TV. Just to mix it up, picky flickers are often also serial super-sizers. One day they’re camped in front of the TV long enough to grow a beard, and the next morning they’re sitting on the bus and swiping through YouTube videos on their phones.
So where’s the TV audience? Well, there are moments when a decent-sized audience can be found sitting in front of boxes — they are the final weeks of The Voice, the moment the winner of The Biggest Loser steps on the scales.
But even these events are massaged by the buzz of social media. People find out about them on their social networks, they comment on them on Twitter, then post the best moments on their networks.
So TV has been co-opted by social media. ‘‘ Talkability’’ is the new strategy in town — get talked about on social media or shut up shop. Sometimes the talk brings an influx of viewers to moments of live TV — Bill Gates on Q&A — but most often it slowly builds a devoted following. Whether TV executives like it or not, they are losing control of their content, of the broadcast of content, of the timing and quantity of consumption of their content. And, inevitably, they are changing the content that’s on offer. Like fast food companies that tailor menus to the Whopper customers, content makers are tailoring storylines to the viewing diets of their audiences.
A few weeks ago the producers of Arrested Development released all 15 episodes on the one day so viewers could choose either to watch them at one sitting or create their own schedule of viewing.
Similarly, the creators of House of Cards say they think of the series as having chapters rather than episodes: they are creating a very long movie rather than a series.
DreamWorks has just announced it’s creating 300 hours of programming for streaming, breaking its long-held strategy of two blockbuster movies a year. And, finally, local networks are beginning to cater for the new audiences. SBS, for instance, announced recently that SBS On Demand would offer every episode of selected series after the broadcast of the first one.
All networks are still struggling with the new audience.
You could feel sorry for the TV executives, except that for so long they tried to sandbag the tide. They messed around with starting times, hijacked episodes midstream, changed timeslots and ran repeats through new episodes to milk the moment. They manipulated us but we were already on the way out of the room. They couldn’t think outside the box. And now it’s too late because the action is happening outside the box.