How Episodic Television Shows Are Killing Their Own Business


I watch Netflix about as much these days as I do regular TV, and here’s why: when I can actually get the service to work (thank you Verizon), I can watch entire seasons of shows at once, without having to wait a week at a time, without having to sit through reruns, without having to “choose” between two shows in the same time slot (like I really watch either of them when they come on anyway, it’s called DVR folks), but most of all because I don’t have to sit through commercials.

Unfortunately, I usually have to wait a few years for a single season of a show to hit Netflix, assuming it ever does. I assume this is because they want to make sure to get their money from the first run, the reruns, the syndication, the DVD sales, the syndicated DVD sales, the reruns of the syndicated DVD sales, and whatever all else they do. It’s not until they have a given season running on at least three basic cable channels (or they’ve been passed up by five) that they “stoop” to leasing the rights to Netflix, and even then I’ve seen some shows yank the rights back (I got about five episodes into Babylon 5 before they did this to me).

Why? What do they really think they’re getting out of this? Is there some rabid ocelot in a back room that flails around on a Twister board and they interpret these signals as decisions? Here’s a little clue for you, Oh Great And Powerful Television Executives: the people who bother to watch syndicated television are not the same people who watch Netflix or similar streaming services. Not even close. There may have been, once upon a time, a cross-over audience between those who bought entire seasons of TV shows on DVD and the streaming audience, but that’s a dying trend, too. Only the truly rabid fan base is going to care that much and they will still be there for you (probably wearing a handmade costume piece from their favorite character that you sent a cease and desist order about).

As I see it, there are three primary audiences “second run” television should be aiming for. The first is the hardcore audience, the folks who love a show enough to want everything about it. These folks will buy the entire season on DVD/Blu-Ray, especially if it comes with extras like cast interviews and commentary. The next audience would be the “catch-up” audience. This is what I envision as the folks who only heard about the show from friends well after the season (or the show itself) started and don’t want to jump in halfway through. They want to binge, catch-up to the current storyline, and watch all the first run episodes from there. These are the folks who will watch all the back episodes on a streaming service (small revenue source) and then become more eyeballs for the new episodes, you know, the ones with the most expensive commercials (big revenue source). Finally there’s the casual viewers who like the show well enough to leave it on but don’t consider it “must see” television. This is where you get your syndicated television dollars.

In an ideal world, I envision the lifecycle of a show would be this:

  • First run, including all reruns in primetime slot. Season ends.
  • As soon as season ends, entire season is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services. DVD/Blu-Ray includes bonus features.
  • Over off-season, previous season reruns in primetime slot.
  • After new season starts, last season enters syndication immediately.

The benefit of this system for the viewers is obvious. The benefit for the studios is a little more subtle, but what it means in the long run is less pirating and more eyeballs for first-run content. When people don’t have to feel 2-5 years behind the storyline (unless they feel like coughing up a couple hundred bucks for a show they might or might not like), they’re more likely to get invested. And more invested fans means a higher percentage of rabid fans, which means more DVD sales. The syndicated episodes aren’t going to be hurt any, because the folks who weren’t willing to pay for streaming services are still going to be there, and the ones who did? You grew your audience for those episodes.

The fact that Netflix and Hulu are coming up with their own original programming is just going to hurt these guys even more. Now there are even fewer reasons to be attached to networks and their ridiculous scheduling. I understand once upon a time the system was rigged in such a way that it was winner take all and pitting the best shows against each other meant you had the best chance of crushing the other guy and getting all the money, but here’s a thought: maybe people don’t watch TV that way anymore. Maybe (and this might even date back to the advent of the VCR) people expect to be able to watch ALL the shows they like, not just one or two. Having them all in the same time slots and on the same schedule just seems… well… dumb. But if you have to continue playing that game, at least give yourselves the best chance at a second chance, and stop holding back last year’s episodes until nobody cares anymore.

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