It took over 10 years for the U.S. to transition to color television broadcasts. It’s taking even longer for the world as a whole to standardize digital broadcast signals. Season episode count is still in constant debate. And we can’t decide if we should still be making pilots. The point is, as in any medium, technological (and business) innovation in television is slow. It always has been. It takes a long time for audiences to adapt to a new way of doing things on the small screen, and it takes even longer for the powers that be to do what the audiencewants. But with all the drastic ways television changed this year, 2013 might just go down as one of the most important years in the history of the medium.
The Rise of Digital Content
Did you watch House of Cards this year? How about Orange Is the New Black? Alpha House? Betas?Hemlock Grove? While watching any of them, did you know you were participating in a revolution? Well you were. Companies like Netflix and Amazon have been claiming for years they were going to start producing original content to make themselves competitive in the television landscape, little did we realize just how serious they were.
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In less than a year, Netflix put out four original series that landed them not just some Emmy nominations, but ones that included categories such as best leading actor in a drama, best leading actor in a comedy, best leading actress in drama, and, oh yeah, best drama series. While certainly not the only players in the game (more on that in a moment), Netflix legitimized digital content, and through that legitimacy, changed a model as old as Walter Cronkite. The company completely subverted the way we consume television with their “everything at once” distribution model and have since been on an unheard of buying spree that shows no signs of slowing down.
The rise of digital distribution in 2013 also brought into existence something television’s never had before, an indie scene. Thanks to the likes of Freddie Wong and his web-series VGHS, Chris Hardwick and his Nerdistempire, and Mythbusters’ Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman’s Tested.com, we’re in a new age of off-beat programming not meant for the masses. It’s a wave not unlike the independent film scene of the 90s. Concepts that just aren’t marketable on a mass-scale are turned into niche properties that thrive with cultaudiences. Because of how airwaves once worked, something like this wasn’t possible outside of public access programming. But now with YouTube as its distributor, audiences are being exposed to a form of television they’ve never seen before. Television that doesn’t care about Nielsen data, commercial prices per second, or premium subscription fees. Television that is, for lack of a better word, cool.Time-Shifting Takes Hold
We all know the steroid enhanced VCR that is DVR, and we all love it. We love how easy it’s become to use, and we love that it gives us full control over our watching schedule. But in the eyes of the networks, DVR’s never been a player. Rarely did series post live +3 and live +7 numbers that made any sort of difference in the ratings landscape. To the big guys, DVR was just a cool thing that audiences seemed to enjoy having… then 2013 happened.
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DVR’s not only an audience favorite this year; it’s doing things people thought it would never achieve. Series like The Blacklist and Sleepy Hollow have continually broken ratings records since September, and they’ve sent a clear message to television networks: audiences want power over their content. But the effects of time-shifting don’t stop with set-top boxes. Audiences are now bypassing television providers all together and instead are just watching shows online (more on that in a bit as well). It’s a shift that’s been so dramatic that Nielsen’s been forced to not only redefine what qualifies as a television viewer, but in 2014 they have to start counting them in their daily ratings reports.
While time-shifting hasn’t completely destroyed live viewing, it’s certainly struck a blow this year. Not just with audiences, but with providers as well. 2013 changed the way networks think about ratings, and audiences can pat themselves on the back knowing they’re 100% the reason it matters now. The question today isn’t if people are going to continue watching television this way, it’s can the old-model survive the shift?Conclusions
Syndication was once about affiliates and cable networks. It was about 100 and done. Not now. In 2013, syndication is about endings. In a way, this relates back to the model-changing business practices being employed by Netflix, and the effects of time-shifted viewing. Digital distributors have made series conclusions matter in a big way because it’s where audiences are going to binge-watch series they either missed or want to catch up on at a later date. But because people are far more interested in a completed story than they are in an incomplete one, the shows they watch need to have conclusions if there’s any hope of making them valuable properties in the long run.
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2013 saw/will see endings for programs such as Breaking Bad, Dexter, Futurama, Burn Notice, Nikita,Fringe, Last Resort, Spartacus, 90210, The Office, and 30 Rock. Five years ago we’d be lucky if the number was half that amount. Conclusions matter in 2013 because they matter to the business model, and that’s why it belongs on the list of reasons why 2013 matters so much to the medium as a whole. Thanks to changes in the business of what qualifies as valuable, we’re being given an opportunity to see our favorite characters ride off into the sunset… or die on the cold floor of a meth lab, either way. Audience members have at least somesecurity now that the hope of seeing their favorite shows end the way they deserve will actually happen, and that’s all they’ve ever wanted.New Ways To Experience
Thanks to the likes of smart phones, tablets, PCs, and even movie theaters, television isn’t just about the TV anymore. Audiences have not only taken control of when they watch television, but also how, and not just for fictional programming. Major league sports and news organizations alike have taken to these new delivery systems in order to stay up to date with the demands of their audience.
Unlike its celluloid cousin, television is a medium that’s adapted perfectly into its new delivery system. Networks today understand they must now go to where the audience is in order to survive, and they’ve started offering their programs for free in a big way to mobile watchers. Some have even gone so far as to release apps that allow viewers to watch the channel live if they have an active cable or satellite subscription. In addition to that, thanks to third-party services like Hulu, Amazon and iTunes, the sky’s the limit on what devices people can, and will watch their favorite shows on.
You want to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones on your iPad while running on the treadmill? Have at it. You want to watch that LA Kings game on the Amtrak from New York City to Boston? Give it a go. The technological advancements of cell phone reception and WiFi in 2013 has freed us from the one thing that was truly holding television back, the TV itself. We can now take Walter White and Rick Grimes anywhere we go. The medium is ours to control in 2013, and in just about every aspect we could have desired.
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Innovation is a cruel beast. Even when the future is obvious, it can sometimes take a lifetime to see a new vision achieved. But there are also times when a populous realizes from the word go that innovation is in their best interest. It’s rare, but it happens, and 2013 was one of those times for the medium of television.
The art of the small screen has been evolving since the invention of the medium itself. It’s brought us together in times of tragedy, it’s taken us to worlds that once only existed in our dreams, and it’s shown us thatsometimes we need to be reminded of where our moral compass lies. But both the story and business innovations that made these things possible have always been atop a slow moving train. All too often,audiences are forced to wait years, sometimes decades to get what they want out of the medium they love. But not this year. This year, to quote a certain mutant professor, evolution leaped forward. If for nothing else, 2013 will go down as one of the most important years in the medium’s history simply because it’s one of the few times audiences came first, and business came second.