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From binge-viewing to cord-cutting: Four takeaways from the 2015 TCA press tour

From binge-viewing to cord-cutting: Four takeaways from the 2015 TCA press tour
FX Networks Chief Executive John Landgraf, left, CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler, CBS Television Studios President David Staph and President of Showtime Networks David Nevins. (Frank Micelotta / FX; Mark Davis / Getty Images; Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

Get some TV network executives on stage in 2015, and things are bound to veer into four topics: Netflix, binge-viewing, the glut of television, and the real or overblown threat of cord-cutting.

The biannual Television Critics Assn. press tour wrapped its nearly three-week run on Thursday, and while the frequent mentions of Donald Trump could have made for a good drinking game, there were other industry-focused hot topics from the conference.

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Netflix

Once a footnote at the conference in its short time doing original programming, Netflix had its growing clout on full display at this year's TCA press tour. The streaming service kicked off the gathering, and had the most panels (11) of any network.

The latter tidbit elicited a "wow" from HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo when it was brought to his attention. Asked whether HBO viewed Netflix's robust subscriber base (65 million worldwide) as a threat, Lombardo downplayed that notion.

"No, we don't," Lombardo replied. "In terms of the number of subscribers -- they're an international network right now. I don't know what their domestic footprint is. We've never seen the world as binary. We over-index in Netflix homes. People consume quality entertainment however they get it."

When FX Networks CEO John Landgraf appeared before reporters and talked about brands increasingly becoming important in today's fragmented media, Netflix was among those he cited as an outlet with a distinctive brand--along with HBO, Showtime and AMC, in addition to the Big Four broadcasters.

And in one case this year, that brand-building came from a passover from another network. When NBC passed on the quirky Tina Fey-Robert Carlock comedy "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," which was produced by its own NBCUniversal, Netflix picked up the series. Netflix, of course, does not release viewership data, but the comedy was well-received in a more tangible way: with Emmy nominations. Asked whether there was any regret about passing on the comedy, NBC chairman of entertainment Robert Greenblatt held firm to the decision.

"You know, we're whores for Emmy nominations just like everybody else," he joked. "And we would love to be able to claim those nominations for NBC, but I think we thought long and hard about what's the best way to launch this show, because we also own it ... and we wanted to really put that show in the situation that it had the best chance of success. And we thought the Netflix move was going to be that."

In noting the ways in which media companies are competing, while also working hand-in-hand, in this evolving TV universe, CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler highlighted the push-and-pull relationship with the streaming service.

"Netflix competes with us for audience, while buying previous seasons of our popular dramas, many of which perform quite well on their service," she said. "The truth is we're all part of one big content universe."

Binge-viewing

Speaking of Netflix--releasing all episodes at once, to allow for binge-watching, is a model that media outlets are inch-by-inch experimenting with in the wake of Netflix's success with the strategy.

NBC recently jumped on the bandwagon by releasing all episodes of its David Duchovny summer drama "Aquarius" via various on-demand platforms immediately after the show's premiere. NBC's Greenblatt revealed that what actually happened was far from a binge-fest. In the end, 94% of the "Aquarius" audience watched the traditional way, while just 6% watched online.

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"We're the most traditional kind of network, and we're always looking for ways to become less traditional," Greenblatt said of the experiment. Greenblatt did point to a silver lining: Those who did watch online were younger -- with a median age of 35. So the experiment wasn't a total bust.

Premium cable network Starz will next give the all-at-once strategy with its new limited series "Flesh and Bone" and returning drama "Da Vinci's Demons"; all episodes will be made available for Starz subscribers on its Starz Play app and Starz on Demand.

"It's fun to run a premium network and do different things with programming, and this is an experiment for us," said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht.

ABC president Paul Lee acknowledged the effect binge-viewing on streaming services and On Demand has had for some of its shows, particularly its serialized dramas--using "Scandal's" push from wallflower in Season 1 to becoming a full-fledged force by Season 2 as viewers caught up over the summer. But Lee said the network wasn't eyeing a binge-release tryout.

"We don't have any plans to do that," he said.

Meanwhile, streaming service Hulu is looking to be contrarian. The service will release its upcoming slate of original series in weekly installments.

"We want to give viewers the opportunity to discover their favorite shows every week. Like you, we value the shared experience and the joy of the watercooler that is television," said Craig Erwich, head of content at Hulu, earlier this week.

Erwich said taking on a more traditional release schedule allows the service to get shows to the audience faster because there's no need to accumulate a full series in the bank before releasing it on the platform.

Glut of television shows

One of the most circulated phrases to come out of this year's TCA press tour was FX's Landgraf proclaiming, "There is simply too much TV." Maybe it's because it was so obvious, and yet offered some validation to our overwhelmed brains.

According to FX research, there were upward of 371 scripted series in 2014. The best current estimates for 2015, Landgraf added, will "easily blow through 400 series."

Landgraf said he expects 2015 and 2016 to be "peak TV in America" but predicts we'll begin to see declines beyond that.

When Showtime president (and soon-to-be CEO) David Nevins appeared later in the tour, he conceded to Landgraf's statement, but with a contention:

"There may be too much good TV, [but] there's never enough great TV," Nevins told reporters. "I can't imagine anyone would ever say there's too much great TV. There's a lot going on. There's a lot of stupid money going in a lot of different directions."

Cord-cutting

The press tour was underway just as another major media story was taking shape outside the confines of its setting at the Beverly Hilton--the media stocks meltdown that took place last week.

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Changing viewing habits, particularly among young people, have been disrupting the TV industry for some time. Many now watch TV shows on their tablets and smartphones or record them to watch later. In addition, TV shows are facing rising competition from video games, YouTube videos, Facebook and other social media.

And when Disney's Chief Executive Bob Iger noted the effect of cord-cutting, in which people ditch their cable or satellite TV service for digital streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu, on the company's brands, it sent Wall Street in a tizzy--concluding investment in media stocks as too risky.

But those TV executives in attendance at TCA's press tour didn't seem that alarmed.

"We have a lot of room for expansion in that universe," said Nevins of the cord-cutting sector.

Showtime debuted its eponymous digital over-the-top streaming service in July, Nevins said, as a way to reach those customers who don't already have a cable or satellite TV service.

FX's Landgraf told reporters: "There was nothing that Bob Iger said in his call that I haven't seen coming and haven't been planning for many years."

But Landgraf did acknowledge changes must come as viewing habits continue to shift away from linear TV to on-demand platforms.

When The Times spoke to Gary Newman, chairman of Fox Television Group, during a break in Fox's day at TCA's press tour, he pointed to the network's hit show "Empire" and how it prospered with a traditional once-a-week rollout despite changing habits. Ratings grew each week, and the event-style scheduling also generated social media buzz.

"What 'Empire' really speaks to is the fact that broadcast television is still incredibly relevant and vibrant," Newman said. "But cord-cutting is a phenomenon that I think all media companies need to think about — what is it that's driving consumers to cord cut?"

He continued: "On the most simplistic level, our point of view is to create content, we'll figure out some way to get it into the homes and on the mobile devices of consumers," Newman said. "We'll be able to figure out a business model that will allow us to continue to do that."

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy

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