Amanda Lotz can recall when she would look forward to the launch of a new TV season. Armed with a marker, she would scrutinize TV scheduling grids and entertainment magazines, highlighting promising new shows and old favorites as she often built her evenings around the network’s schedule.
That was almost six years ago.
Except for special events, Lotz, 40, the mother of two elementary schoolchildren who is an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan, doesn’t watch live TV anymore. These days she prefers to binge-watch shows, often on Netflix.
New technologies like video streaming, DVRs and video on demand have liberated millions of viewers who were once beholden to the intractable TV schedule. As more viewers opt to control their own entertainment calendar, the practice raises questions about whether the once-almighty TV schedule will become as obsolete as rabbit antenna ears and black-and-white sets.
“People can now ‘read’ television,” Lotz said. “It’s become like reading books.”
Both broadcast and cable networks are taking steps that would make the kind of push-button world of instantly available programming possible for everyone. Last month, CBS trumpeted plans for a subscription service that for $5.99 a month will enable viewers to stream live television and access on-demand series such as “The Good Wife” and “NCIS.”
The CBS move followed an earlier announcement from the premium cable network HBO that it would offer a stand-alone streaming series next year. Netflix continues to be the leader in video streaming, while Amazon TV is one of several venues aggressively moving forward with an original programming slate that viewers can access at their leisure.
While leading TV executives say that the traditional TV schedule has indeed been affected, they maintain that it remains an essential tool both for viewers and networks — and, from their point of view, will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Research indicates that a majority of the TV audience depends on the schedules to make viewing choices. Meanwhile, network executives still rely on it for marketing and programming strategies.
“We’re still a good distance away from the schedule not being particularly relevant,” said David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corp. “Eighty percent of viewership is still live, and over 60% of viewing in prime time is still live.”
Added Kim Lemon, executive vice president of research, program planning and scheduling and research for Showtime Networks: “You’d have to have your head in the sand not to acknowledge that people are definitely taking more control of how they watch television. But personally I still believe in the schedule.”
Poltrack pointed out how schedules will continue to be a guidepost: “You can see what happens when a hit like ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is a lead-in as opposed to a normal show being a lead-in. Having a big lead-in affects the performance of the shows behind it. Scheduled shows that are big tent poles drive viewers to other shows.”
Schedules remain an effective launch pad, Lemon said. “For us, it’s like the gun is going off. We really think of our schedule in terms of time of year and launching shows on a quarterly basis. We find Sunday night is a great night for TV viewers. So for us, it’s when does the gun go off, and then we just try to make it really available and convenient for our viewers to consume.”
In 2006, Lemon said, the premiere of a Sunday installment of “Dexter” would pull in 70% of its viewers live on that night. The live average viewership for last season’s “Homeland” episodes was 30%.
That kind of collapse in live viewing might also erode the time-honored “water cooler” conversations — the spontaneous exchanges at workplaces where the previous night’s TV is discussed.
“The water cooler is not one day anymore,” Lemon said. “But a big chunk, about two-thirds, of viewing is happening within three days.”
Julie Piepenkotter, executive vice president of research for FX Networks, said viewers will continue to need the shared experience of watching television. She noted how the network’s hugely popular motorcycle gang drama “Sons of Anarchy” still gets a majority of its viewership live.
“As soon as those episodes drop, people are consuming them,” she said. “It’s not the same level of critical mass we’ve seen before. But people are still social beings seeking consensus and connection.”
Tom Schatz, director of film studies at the University of Texas, likened the usefulness of the traditional TV schedule to the movie industry’s practice of promoting and releasing new films: “Everything is driven by the release of new films, and show premieres drive everything in television. It’s an old-fashioned model, but it works. It’s not going anywhere any time soon.”