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July 22, 2016

Window Pains

With the digital transition still very much in flux, release windows - when and where series become available for streaming - are likewise all over the map, leaving viewers wondering why they can’t watch their favorite show.

Daniel Frankel
  • Photoillustration by Todd Reublin

For those who’ve ditched traditional pay-TV and the DVR - and even those who split viewing between conventional and streaming - there’s a notion of having entered an on-demand Utopia.

Armed with a couple of digital subscription services, we think we can easily find and binge-watch any show we want, new or old. On our own time. On the device we choose. Without commercials.

Are you a Sling TV subscriber, for example, who missed Better Call Saul? No problem, right? Just search AMC's on-demand catalog on Sling for the latest episode.

But like the stormy relationship between Saul's title character — smooth-talking lawyer gone... er, going bad, Jimmy McGill — and his disapproving older brother, Chuck, things are much more complicated.

"The notion that content is going to be all over the place on all these different platforms is a myth," says Joel Espelien, senior analyst for the Diffusion Group, a video business research firm. "I actually feel like it's going in the opposite direction."

Amid a digital transition still very much in flux, where things are going is not completely clear, it's indisputable that the old television world — with its limited viewing options — was governed by predictable rules: shows gravitated from network run to syndication and cable sales to TV Land heavy rotation.

But in the age of seemingly unlimited choice, every programmer handles distribution differently. And for that, we can thank the infinitely complex, vastly inconsistent web of program rights deals, which makes navigating the world of on-demand programming very confusing.

Making a wide selection of shows available across digital platforms has benefits for consumers and programmers alike. It “allows for binge and catch-up viewing of  previous seasons,” notes Jennifer Mirgorod, executive vice-president of brand distribution for Turner Networks. “That creates added value for new seasons and increases the long-term value of our content.”

But the wild inconsistency of program availability is keeping that on-demand Utopia from becoming a reality. A prime example is Sling TV, Dish Network's flourishing online service, which has surpassed half a million users in just over a year of existence and is viewed by some analysts as the standard for future pay-TV services.

If, say, you come home late on a Sunday and you've missed the night's linear episode of HBO's Game of Thrones, you can stream it on demand on Sling TV. In fact, on Sling TV you can stream all previously aired episodes from the current season, along with all shows from the previous five seasons of Thrones.

However, if your late arrival has upset your plans to watch The Walking Dead on AMC, you'll have to wait until the next day to stream the show. With Sling TV, you can watch all of the current season's previously aired episodes, but you'll have to go somewhere else, like Netflix, to find Walking Dead episodes from previous seasons.

You're completely out of luck if you've missed Sunday night's episode of Murder in the First on TNT. The Turner Networks don't offer on-demand programming on Sling TV.

And within conglomerates, strategies can vary from programming group to programming group, notes Chris Pizzurro, head of business development for Canoe Ventures, which enables cable operators to run ads in their video-on-demand programming.

"What ESPN does can be different from what Disney Channel does," Pizzurro explains, "even though they're owned by the same company."

Consider Sling TV again. Until recently, ESPN offered no on-demand programming on Sling. Now, it has a very limited amount — sports fans are not going to find any of the network's 30 for 30 documentaries on demand, for example, or replays of any of the night's ballgames.

However, Disney Channel allows for streaming of current and archival episodes on Sling TV of shows like Stuck in the Middle and Jessie.

For archival seasons, Netflix has long been the frontrunner — the place where many viewers learned to binge-watch in the first place. Netflix still aggressively stacks — or, makes full seasons available — of water-cooler shows.

Fans can find full volumes of basic-cable hits from FX and AMC, for example, and archival broadcast staples like Friends and How I Met Your Mother are also in the Netflix library.

But few networks have across-the-board licensing deals with Netflix, For example, viewers can stream past-season episodes of Fox shows like New Girl and Family Guy, but Empire is nowhere to be found.

Increasingly, major program suppliers are bypassing Netflix deals in favor of their own direct-to-consumer SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) platforms, like CBS All Access and HBO Now. And Netflix is focusing more and more on its own original content.

"If I'm Netflix, I'm totally disinterested in getting more content from the major networks," Espelien observes. "Nobody is going to drop Netflix because it doesn't have Empire."

Hulu is a great destination for current-season shows from ABC, Fox and NBC, since the corporate owners of those networks also jointly own the digital streamer. But for shows from CBS, Showtime or any other network under the CBS Corporation banner, consumers must go to a destination like CBS All Access or Showtime's SVOD service.

However, big-event programming from suppliers that do business with Hulu — such as FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — doesn't necessarily show up the day after it airs on its home network. On-demand streaming of FX shows is available on the network's FXNow site, but that is a so-called TV Everywhere platform, which requires proof of a cable or satellite subscription before viewing.

The last stop? A transactional platform — like iTunes, Google Play, Amazon or Vudu — where, for $2.99, you can most often find and stream a single episode of a water-cooler show. A payment of $19.99 will usually get you a full season. But relying on these platforms can get expensive, and there's always the nagging feeling you could have found your show for free if you'd just kept looking.

To understand how program distribution on streaming platforms got so complicated, it’s useful to go back a few years and examine how things started.

In the early days, Espelien explains — say, 2010, when Netflix streaming started gaining momentum with consumers — the major program suppliers "sent business development people in and said, 'Get whatever you can.' People did deals for whole catalogs, old shows — it was a flea-market approach.

Content companies approached these SVOD window deals as found money." This led to a mishmash of shows available for streaming — old favorites like Three's Company and M*A*S*H were sprinkled in with gobs of movies. Netflix, which had fewer than 20 million subscribers at the time, was just discovering that TV series drew stronger audience engagement than movies.

The major programming suppliers, meanwhile, were reluctant to put their current hits into an environment they feared could further cannibalize their already eroding Nielsen ratings. "We've got to protect our family jewels," CBS Corporation chief Leslie Moonves said at the time.

Major broadcast networks were posting their shows the day after air on their own websites and on platforms like Hulu. But there were few full seasons available for on-demand streaming. Binge watching, other than via DVD box sets, wasn't yet a big thing.

While the ad sales environment remained challenging and their linear ratings were down, program suppliers were enthused by the fast-growing audiences — and licensing coin — of the major SVOD platforms. Programmers like AMC and FX made Netflix a key aftermarket for their shows — a place where viewers could ramp up to the current seasons of shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy.

But soon, a testy negotiating environment took hold. "It used to be a traditional, back-end handshake negotiation," Espelien says. "Now it's driven by quantitative data, and the shift really favors the SVOD guys."

Netflix, which does not release its viewer data, can tell programmers on the other side of the table that their shows just don't draw that big of an audience. The programmers, lacking that crucial data, will wonder why they should take little to no increase in their licensing fee — or even a fee reduction — when Netflix's subscriber base has grown to 70 million.

The result, Espelien says, is that the "spray-and-pray" days — when programmers blindly threw up past-season episodes of their hits on the major SVOD platforms — appear to be ebbing. Most of the programming conglomerates are beginning to hold back SVOD rights and instead are launching their own streaming platforms.

As Mirgorod notes, Turner recently debuted its movie-streaming site FilmStruck and has other SVOD platforms on the way. NBCU introduced the comedy-themed platform Seeso, and CBS is starting to commission exclusive shows for its All Access site.

Netflix, meanwhile, continues to aggressively develop original shows and prepare for a future in which it produces most of its own content, much like HBO.

This movement has upended the notion of the streaming smorgasbord — one destination for OTT (over-the-top, or internet-delivered) content, where TV enthusiasts can find everything they're looking for. But in some sense, it's more orderly — viewers now know, for example, that they can stream HBO shows directly from HBO Now.

"Coherence is increasing as we move further away from those original shotgun deals," Espelien says. "Those deals made no sense from a brand-coherence standpoint."

While cord-cutters continue to map the complicated OTT frontier, it’s hard not to yearn a  bit for the ease and simplicity of traditional cable (discounting the not-so-simple economics).

And Comcast - the country’s number-one pay-TV operator, with some 22 million customers - is encouraging that affection, trying to make sure that its XfinityTV users never leave the platform to search for a show or movie.

The cable company has stacking rights to the top 100 Nielsen-rated shows, meaning viewers can catch up with any of them — starting with the first episode of the current season — via the Xfinity On Demand platform, Comcast is also building out Xfinity's transactional capabilities, so that customers can purchase movies and shows without leaving the ecosystem for iTunes or Google Play,

Of course, this robust service doesn't come cheap, tacking on well over $100 to whatever customers are already paying for Comcast broadband services — a further reminder of why younger consumers increasingly eschew pay-TV.

But at the same time that millennials are abandoning traditional cable — and programmers are taking back their shows to put them on their own streaming platforms — a new distribution method appears to be gaining traction in the digital world. And, in some ways, it's not that different from the old-world cable bundle.

In April, Amazon revealed that it had secured 30 SVOD channels, including NBCUniversal's Seeso and Starz's direct-to-consumer streaming platform, for its Streaming Partners program.

The offering allows Amazon users to choose among streaming program services and pay for them all with one bill. It's true a la carte programming, allowing TV fans to cherry-pick everything they want and leave behind everything they don't. And programmers can turn hassles such as customer billing and marketing over to Amazon.

In the future, cord-cutters may be able to find everything in one place, after all.

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