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TV NOW: Are You Cheating On Your TV Shows?

John Landgraf FX

The one headline that caught everyone’s attention from this summer’s Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour was: “There Is Simply Too Much Television” FX Network’s CEO John Landgraf may have not intended for that one quote be the spotlight focus of his executive presentation, but it is the one thing that resonated with television critics and press alike.  Indeed, Landgraf had hit upon a nerve that had been sending pain signals to just about every TV critic out there for the past few years.  In fact, I wrote about that topic in December 2012 in my article “So Many Shows, So Little Time“, followed by HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall’s article “How Much Good TV Is Too Much?” in April 2013 and echoed again by The Daily Beast in January 2015 in its article “There’s Too Much Damn TV“. Taking up the top yet again is NPR’s Linda Holmes in her article “Is There Really Too Much TV?

No matter what side of the fence you fall on, it is indisputable that the proliferation of scripted television shows has increased dramatically in the past 5 years. Total scripted television shows rose from 340 shows in 2013 to 371 shows in 2014 and now there will be over 400 shows at the end of 2015 — that is an increase of over 60 additional television shows in the past 2 years. Significantly, cable (HBO, Showtime, Starz, Cinemax, TNT, A&E and more) rose from only 87 shows in 2009 to 199 shows by the end of 2014 — a 665% increase in 5 years. (Thanks to Joe Adalian @TVMoJoe for that whopping statistic.)

It first occurred to me in February 2012 that the rapid increase of available television shows and the rise of DVR-viewing that the sheer number of television shows and the way viewers watch them was beginning to change dramatically.  In my article “A Television Pie Theory” I noted that the sheer number of TV shows available combined with the advent of DVR usage was creating a “cheating” phenomenon among television viewers.  Because in order to keep up with “water-cooler” television shows, viewers were watching those and stock-piling their other TV shows.  Not only had the number of available scripted television shows risen significantly since 2010, so had the rise of social media.  It became necessary for viewers to stay current on the most buzzed about TV shows or risk social ostracism, or worse yet, being “spoiled.”  Social media, while a useful and wonderful tool, had a dark-side:  it could spoil a TV show in seconds.  Live-tweeting by fans and stars of the show meant that every surprise was announced across the social media spectrum from Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr in milliseconds.  So whether it was to be a part of the conversation and stay abreast of the “water-cooler” TV shows or to save oneself from being “spoiled” by the millions of social media reactions that quickly became news headlines across the internet, TV viewers were being forced to watch TV shows LIVE and not save those shows to watch at their leisure.  It became essential to triage which TV shows had to be watched immediately or LIVE or suffer the repercussions.

This propelled the TV show “cheating” phenomenon to the breaking point that it exists at today.  As FX’s Landgraf boldly proclaimed at this summer TCA tour:  “this is simply too much television,” and it has sparked an even more interesting trend:  cheating on the TV show “cheating.”

A television viewer can no longer keep up with just the “water-cooler” TV shows; viewers feel compelled to keep up with all the TV shows.

Netflix changed the television watching game when it debuted with its first original scripted show “House of Cards” in February 2013.  The fact that Netflix fueled the fire of the binge-watching trend by releasing each of its scripted shows an entire season at a time — so one could watch the entire first season of “House Of Cards” or “Orange Is the New Black” all in one sitting for 13-hours straight on the day it was released — it was the equivalent of striking a match on the hotly burning flame of TV viewers’ passion to watch shows at their own pace.  But Netflix did not mind the controversy and blatantly encourage the rise of the binge-watching phenomenon.  It also had another curious side-effect, as noted in the USA Today article “Is Your Partner Cheating on You — With Netflix?” It was a bold proclamation and held more than just a little grain of truth to it.  Television shows are addictive and making shows available to binge-watch has encouraged viewers to watch when they can, wherever they can — and they do.  Even if it is behind their loved one’s back.

Flashforward two years to this summer and another “cheating” trend as emerged:  viewers are fatigued by the need to keep up with too many TV shows and are simply giving up.  They are sneaking away from the television sets, away from their iPads and tablets, and away from streaming and keeping up with TV shows online.  So where are they going?  “Anywhere but here” from the looks of the TV show ratings this summer, which have fallen off sharply.  Viewers have decided that it is just too damn exhausting trying to keep up.  So viewers are sneaking away to watch shows that they have been secretly wanting to spend time with — not the most buzzed about TV shows or the most “water-cooler” desirable TV shows, but rather the shows that they just want to watch.  That is really what modern content-viewing is about:  watching what you want, when you want and no matter who else is watching it.

Viewers want to turn the channel or surf the web and find their own content.  They have discovered that networks like Lifetime and USA Network have unveiled two of the juiciest shows of summer in Lifetime’s “UnREAL” and USA Network’s “Mr. Robot.”  Viewers also happily jumped into the craziness of Fox’s “Wayward Pines.”  They also surprisingly discovered ABC’s “The Astronaut Wives.”  And if it was not one of those shows, then it was perhaps discovering Hallmark Channel’s heart-warming dramas “When Calls the Heart” or “Cedar Cove” or one of Hallmark’s June wedding-themed films or even its sister channel Hallmark’s Movies & Mysteries new mystery series launching each week this summer.  Or perhaps viewers simply wanted to spend more time playing on YouTube and discovering what the hottest videos of the web today are.

Then there was the rise of Periscope.  It is not even television or scripted shows.  It is merely a portal to see across the world and experience what everyone else is doing in the moment, right now — whether it be attending a Taylor Swift concert or one of the gazillion comic-cons that have sprung up across the globe.  Periscope has become a force to reckoned with in the fight for eyeballs.  Why watch a sports game on television when you can get a more “live” experience by watching it on Periscope?

And suddenly the infallibility of sports television seems more in doubt.  Will advertisers really want to pay those astronomical commercial timeslot fees if more and more folks start watching live sports games on Periscope?  Will the Super Bowl ads even be worth paying $5 million for 30 seconds of ad space then?

Regardless of the impact of Periscope on profits and ad-revenue, the fact remains that more and more viewers are finding alternate ways to spend their time.  There will be in excess of 400 scripted television shows this year, but ratings for those shows have only continued to drop.  Every network and studio in Hollywood has tap-danced through the ratings — aided by Nielsen who needs to feel relevant and to preserve their own bottom-line of profitability — to make it look like viewers are simply now divided among the various viewing platforms being offered through TV sets (cable and broadcast) and tablets/computers (online, streaming, VOD).  But the devastating reality of those rating numbers that no one wants to look at are the “cheating” statistics.  Viewers are shying away from bigger, glitzier and more “water-cooler” shows simply because they have hit their limit.  With too much to keep up with, viewers are choosing to not keep up any more.  The mindset is:  “it’s okay to no longer be current on SCANDAL, I can read about it online and no one will know I didn’t watch it.”  Spoilers are no longer to be dreaded and feared; spoilers are now embraced.  Spoilers have released viewers from the never-ending demand to keep up with every hot show.  Now viewers can secretly just watch something else — and they are.

Ever wonder how those shows that you have never heard of seem to be creepy higher and high on the ratings lists?  It’s because viewers are discovering those shows and watching them.  As primetime viewing numbers have decreased across the board in LIVE viewers or even in the LIVE + 3 days ratings, non-Top 5 network shows have begun to slowly rise in rankings and ratings, and they have begun to effectively siphon off viewers.  It is making networks and channels you have never heard of very profitable.

So this summer’s TCA not only demonstrated that broadcast and cable networks are scrambling to track and assess their true viewership numbers (which may explain the sudden popularity of tracking and attaining key ad-dollars for LIVE + 7 day and LIVE + 30 day viewers), but slipping under the radar was the ratings data being offered by networks like Discovery, UPtv, History Channel and El Rey.  Tip:  the number of viewers watching Discovery or National Geographic on any given day is astounding.

Viewers are clearly abandoning just the Top 5 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and the CW) and are sampling and sticking with alternate channels. Digital cable along with online viewing has made watching alternate programming incredibly accessible and desirable.

From the looks of it, this “cheating” phenomenal is not stopping either.  The Netflix-cheating craze may be going away, but cheating on other TV shows to watch something else is not.  People are tired.  They are too tired of keeping up with 50 of the buzziest TV shows.  They no longer care what Frank Underwood did on “House of Cards” or whether Piper deserved to be the unhappiest inmate of Litchfield on “Orange Is the New Black” or if Olivia Pope is going to ever really choose between Jake and Fitz on “Scandal.”  Viewers just want to watch whatever their TV-loving heart desires.  If they want to watch a reality show to see who can employ the direst tricks to win, or if they want to watch sharks in search of their next prey, or even if they want to watch something more wholesome and family-friendly than whatever is on the Top 5 networks currently, then that is what they are going to watch.

This is the era of: “I will watch whatever I damn well please, when I want and where I want.  Spoilers be damned.”

And that is what really has Hollywood shaking in their boots.  How can they lure and keep viewers when viewers are proving to be so elusive and fickle.  Viewers that may have tuned in to watch a show’s premiere or sneak preview online, may not come back for more.  That isn’t to say that they did not like the show; it is just that viewers do not feel the need to watch on a pre-programmed schedule anymore.  They would prefer to have shows released all at once and they will watch when they feel like it.

Viewers are eschewing the old-fashioned and naive Hollywood network assumption that viewers feel the need to tune in to a particular time/night of the week to watch a specific show.  That is simply too old-fashioned and out-dated.  Viewers want flexibility.  They want binge-ability.  They want shows when they want to watch them.  Not as shows are doled out week-after-week.  It is just too much work to keep up with.  And too frustrating.  So many shows still use the “cliffhanger” approach of keeping viewers tuned in.  Frankly, cliffhangers are also outdated.  For me, it pretty much guarantees that I will stop watching week-to-week and just stockpile a show so that I’m not left “hanging” again.  It also means that for some TV shows, I will hold the final episode for viewing until the next season, just so I’m not left “hanging” over a cliff for 6-9 months, or in worse cases, over a year.  Admit it: you have done it too.  Cliffhangers suck.  They are not thrilling, just frustrating.

Ever hear of the phrase: “a tease,” well, that’s what cliffhangers feel like to TV addicts.  We don’t like to be “teased” and not fulfilled.  That is one of the reasons binge-watching is so addictive and why viewers still love stockpiling shows on their DVRs or just streaming shows on-demand.  This is the era of instant-gratification in television viewing.  Blame it on Netflix, blame in on the availability of shows online, blame it on whatever, but people like what they like and want it when they want it.

Hence, all the “cheating.”  Viewers are simply tired and fed up with keeping up with too many TV shows to possibly watch in their limited free time.  Time is precious and Hollywood seems unappreciative of the hours that viewers are willing to spend with their shows.  So viewers are simply doing something else with their time.  They are getting out of the house.  They are spending time with friends and family.  They are working more.  They are finding their bliss. They are sampling new shows and discovering a whole new world of shows to watch.

It’s bad news for network, cable and online — unless they adapt quickly to the new era of expectations and demands of viewers.  Adapt or die.

I agree with FX’s Landgraf: there is too much TV to watch.  And I am exhausted.  And I am now “cheating” on many of my favorite TV shows simply because I cannot keep up.  There are not enough hours in a day.

So here your chance to confess:  are you a show “cheater” too?  I will bet good money that you are.  That is reality of TV now.

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