Once upon a time, long ago, there was nothing but broadcast television, offering just a handful of channels. If you didn’t like what was on, tough luck. Then, came cable. With cable, you could flip between dozens, if not hundreds, of different channels, each one offering something different. In theory, you were bound to find a great show on one of the channels at any given moment. But somehow, theory was wrong and instead you were bound to find that all 300 channels were boring. Now, we're into a new era of TV on demand. Cable TV is slowly being pushed to the back of the stage, and Internet TV streaming is coming to the fore. TV streaming promises more options for shows, platforms, and devices, but not necessarily greater consumption.
Until recently, TV streaming platforms offered content that was already available elsewhere. Networks like Netflix and Amazon Prime started out by giving customers another way to watch the same movies, TV shows, and series that they would have otherwise watched on cable. There was more flexibility about when you watched it, but the content was essentially the same. All that changed in about 2013, when the Netflix original show, House of Cards won an Emmy. It was the first ever online-only series to win an Emmy, and it marked the moment when internet streaming services really picked up the ball of original content and ran with it. Transparent and Orange is the New Black are other hit TV series that never touched cable TV. Instead of watching the same old TV shows alongside new internet-only programming, viewers are switching entirely to the platform that has the best original content and abandoning the old networks entirely.
Original content was the deciding factor for 18% of people who switched to streaming TV in 2015. More and more viewers recognize that internet TV is the home of the best original scripted series. Internet TV has a number of advantages over cable in attracting new writing talent. Without commercial breaks, scriptwriters don’t need to write around the gaps in viewing. Internet TV platforms are also more willing to take risks with content, storylines, and plot topics than established cable networks, making them more attractive to talented young writers. It’s also been pointed out that because Netflix and Amazon release an entire season at once, viewers can trace the development of more delicate plotlines across several episodes. With the old wait-a-week-for-the-next-installment plan, writers had to include ways to remind their viewers of what happened last week, which slowed down the pace.
With every subsequent wave of TV advances, doomsday prophets predicted that people are going to spend even more time glued to the screen. If you give people more and better content, the argument went, they’ll just neglect everything else in their lives in order to watch it. Of course, TV fans countered with ‘no, we won’t,’ but that wasn’t considered a very scientific response. Fortunately, a 2015 study by the University of Texas at Dallas studied previous trends in consumption and predicted them forward to come to a realistic estimate of how internet TV would affect watching time. It concluded that having more viewing options wouldn’t result in significantly higher viewing time. Instead, people would spend their screen time watching TV shows and programming that they enjoyed a lot more.
It was still feared that binge watchers – people who watch several episodes of TV shows back to back –would end up increasing their viewing time once there were more decent shows to watch. But, the Dallas study covered that too. People who binge watch their shows are just going to be able to binge watch even better shows, now, not necessarily more shows.
Given that internet TV has increased the number of viewing options but hasn't made a significant change in total viewing times, cable networks and internet TV platforms alike are wondering whether internet TV could entirely take over. Most predictions say that it will. Viewers have a limited amount of time to spend watching TV, so it stands to reason that they're going to spend it enjoying their favorite shows. If the best content is moving online, cable is going to find itself languishing forgotten just as broadcast TV was abandoned for cable. This might explain why cable networks are increasingly opening up internet TV streaming platforms of their own. For example, HBO added HBO Now, which streams all of HBO’s classic content but also provides access to original new HBO series. 21st Century FOX and the Walt Disney Corporation make their original content available on Hulu Plus as well as on their cable networks, while CBS’ Showtime added Showtime Anytime for streaming TV.
Viewers who cut the cord in favor of internet TV streaming platforms are led by their desire for the best content as well as a wish to reduce cable costs. Internet TV has brought far greater variety to the TV world and transformed the way that TV shows are planned, written, and released. Since internet TV has brought more options without increasing overall consumption, the demise of cable TV is on the horizon.