The network television season is now well underway and, with the exception of a few stragglers, most shows (new and old) have had their shot at hooking audiences in the premiere week kick-start to the 2014 season. ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” was the darling of the season’s opening week with over 20 million people having watched the show’s premiere. Many, though, question why television still operates on the network season model.
In a September New York Times Article, titled “Fall TV Season Has Buzz, but it’s Growing Softer,” Times writers Bill Carter and Emily Steel argued that, while the network season model continues to remain relevant (and ratings suggest that it does), it is becoming less and less so as it slowly moves towards extinction facing an increasingly fragmented and multi-platform modern audience. However, Carter and Steel may be discounting some of the underlying factors driving the network season model, which ensure that it is not going away anytime soon.
Carter and Steel wrote, “Some in the industry wonder why there is a notion of a season kickoff at all because television programming is increasingly about timelessness and freedom of choice, with viewers deciding when they will watch programs.”
However, this notion ignores the fact that the network season is (and always has been) based on the viewing preferences of the audience, not the other way around. The whole model revolves around a very simple premise – people watch more television when it is colder (fall and winter) and less when it is hot and are spending more time outdoors or on vacation (spring and summer). Unless multi-platform viewing is cutting into this trend, then there is still a fair amount of built-in relevance to the network season.
HUT/PUT data, gathered by Nielsen, measures the average number of households and persons using their television at any given time. This metric should give a solid indication of the current strength of the network season model.
The graph above shows the HUT/PUT data for every calendar month between 2011 and 2013. The graph clearly shows a correlation between calendar season and television usage with each year peaking in January or February (mid-winter) and bottoming out in July (mid-summer ). The television usage trend also directly correlates with the network television season, with the winter peaks falling mid-season and the summer lows falling in the television off-season. Across each month viewership seems to closely match up with the path of the network season, providing evidence to justify to its existence.
An argument could be made here about causation versus correlation. Perhaps, television usage habits follow the television season because that is when networks are more saturated with newer and quality content.
While this may account for some of the correlation, there is reason to believe it is not the only (or even most important) reason that television usage follows the above trend. The peak month for television usage in all years is either January or February, statistically the coldest month of the year. However, these months are mid-season for television networks. If the television usage trend was solely based on the existence of quality content during the network season, it would make more sense for the peak usage to fall in the beginning of the season during September’s premiere week (when new and existing hit shows are heavily promoted to draw in audiences).
Conversely, in the three summer months of June, July, and August (which are all off-season for television) there is a noticeable usage dip July, the hottest statistical month. Despite June and August not typically offering any additional new or quality content when compared to July, they have higher usage numbers in all three years.
The other aspect of network season relevance brought up by Carter and Steel is the existence of multi-platform and on-demand viewing giving audiences the ability to watch shows on their own schedules, not dictated by any network season. While this may be happening, it does not appear to be happening at a rate to make the network television irrelevant anytime soon.
Looking back at the HUT/PUT graph (which only accounts for traditional television usage), television usage in every month across the three years listed has remained relatively constant, not displaying the downward trend one might expect with the rise of multi-platform viewing. In some months (March, April) 2013 usage even exceeds that of 2012. Even the significant gaps between 2011 and the subsequent two years in January and February could be explained by a statistically extreme winter in terms of snowfall that may have forced more people to stay inside and, thus, turn on the television (giving even more credence to the season-based network television model).
The network television season model seems to still have strong credibility based on audience television usage habits in the actual calendar seasons. While multi-platform viewing undoubtedly threatens the model, the data suggests that, currently, it does not do so at any rate to cause immediate alarm. Networks can rest easy – for now.
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