In this guest post, Tyler Greer, head of strategy at MediaCom Melbourne, says TV watching may have become far more personalised, but the next big thing will be how we do it with others…
Personalisation in the on-demand content space has given us plenty. The ability to consume what we want, when we want, in as great amounts as we want. It has freed us from the straitjacket of appointment viewing and given us the things we demand choice and control. But it has also taken something from us. Shared, synchronous viewing experiences offer something around which cultural moments can be built and are something that we as humans crave. And this is something both the streaming services, the digital platforms, and we as consumers are starting to remember.
Way back in the dark past, in a place we called “the 90s”, there existed a little show called Melrose Place. Populated with an array of characters, both pleasant and malevolent, the weekly drama revolved around an apartment block in the LA suburbs. Too many jaw-dropping moments occurred to recall here, but around its Monday night slot developed a weekly culture in which Australians would pile by the thousands into pubs and bars to ride the Melrose highs and lows together.
Though Monday nights have long been regarded as a terrible time to head out, those who wanted to be a part of the Melrose phenomenon had little choice. That’s when it was broadcast. And it was exactly this fact – that something everyone wanted to be involved in – was positioned at the same moment for all of us, allowed for a culture to develop around it.
Its something streaming services like Netflix are waking up to. In March this year, Netflix released two titles which, rather than follow the usual programming format of the ‘full drop’, instead followed a more staggered cadence. To this, they described as “…experimenting with the release format so you have time to dissect and dish on every step of the competition as it unfolds.” Indeed, these programs were competition-based rather than drama, but the idea is clear.
Netflix is not the only service taking this approach. Disney+ series like The Mandalorian and Loki follow a weekly release schedule. AppleTV+ is doing the same. Doubtless some of this is to help differentiate from its Netflix rival, bit some if is a genuine recognition of what gives audience loyalty its pulse. Julie DeTraglia, vice president and head of research and insights at Hulu, where weekly scheduling is also a thing, believes “There is still something about that collective experience where people want to watch TV together and be part of a cultural conversation.”
This also makes sense for the services themselves who, as services increase, will need to find ways to hang onto subscribers. Series following weekly release schedules offer several things at once. They hold on to viewers who become less likely to dip in, binge on everything, and opt-out; they maintain talkability and cultural relevance in market for longer; they free services from enormous production budgets, required to sate bingers who consume high quality drams within days they plead for the next one. Disney, a brand who is more concerned with quality than quantity, is best equipped to follow this model.
The last great collective viewing experience was Game of Thrones. Whether acquired legally or otherwise, each episode’s arrival was a significant moment, with the final series producing a frenzy of excitement as its release drew near. Every fan experienced each episode at the same time, along with the anticipation in the lead up and the reviewing afterwards. The Red Wedding hit us all in the same way at the same time. So too the removal or a certain hand from its wrist, and so on. The reason Game of Thrones achieved such high cultural cache wasn’t entirely tied to its scheduled release, but it was a very large part of it.
Nobody needs tell Free-to-Air broadcasting this. They have known it for decades. Today, as they battle against on-demand content services, the focus is on live sports and reality TV, both of which offer significant collective cultural moments. The Batchelor, with its high drama, office sweepstakes, frenzied whatsapp groups, and often outstanding published recaps, demonstrates how much fun these experiences can be. And how critical they are to TV viewing numbers.
Brands also get this, with Superbowl being the great flagbearer for showing up in TV viewing moments of shared cultural experience. Superbowl ads a expensive, often lavish, and overwhelmingly the preserve of food and beer brands. That’s because, as a cultural moment, Superbowl is the second largest ‘food day’ on the US calendar. Yes, it reaches 100m people, but it is the fact that they are reached simultaneously that gives the ad placements power and high entry cost.
But whilst the FTA networks wring their hands about improving their on-demand viewing experiences, streaming services, along with social media platforms, are engaged in finding solutions to the shared experiences their audiences want.
Amazon’s Watch Party function allows for users to invite up to 100 friends to watch a title together, leaving comments as they go. Instagram offers us the choice of watching reels simultaneously with our friends. Dozens of other new platforms offer the chance to share in the on-demand viewing experience with others.
Personalisation is easy to view as nothing more than an atomised consumption experience. And it can be that, for sure. But it also offers us the chance to intersect with cultural moments in new and unique ways. Connective platforms can make large viewing experiences like sport or reality TV great, inclusive, and accessible. A litany of new connective platforms engineered to facilitate joint viewing experiences provide us with ways to watch TV in group that would have been previously impossible. Personalised, on-demand viewing simply means we can do so when we choose to.
Are streaming services likely to stop dropping entire series at once, or are we all about to abandon binging? Not likely. But if 2020 taught us anything it’s the irreplaceable value of shared experience, and the extent to which content can be a facilitator of this.
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