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Changing Times

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, March 6, the South by Southwest conference was canceled. The City of Austin (home of the 34-year-old event) declared "a local disaster" that will prevent the event from taking place; it was due to start next Friday, March 13. Citing the coronavirus threat, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced the cancellation of the music-and-media extravaganza although he acknowledged that there have been no confirmed cases of the virus in the Austin area. The private company that operates SxSW said it is "devastated” by the cancellation.

No, this screed is not about this weekend's clock shift from “standard” to “daylight savings” time. Although I do have a problem with that, since so many people never figure out when to use "EDT" versus "EST" or "PST" versus PDT. Let's just leave out the middle letter and (assuming we know which part of the map we are in), just say ET, CT, MT or PT. It works year-round.

Actually the current obsession with time involves the media's dramatic revision of "when" things happen, starting with distribution policies. Last month's Oscar competition again brought forth the question of timing, along with the decision about "where" content first appears. Specifically, Netflix released The Irishman and Les Misérables (a French film in the Best International Feature category) theatrically a few weeks before they went online. The goal was to build Oscar buzz before streaming them. (Neither film won its Oscar.) Netflix's tactic mirrored that taken by Amazon Studios in 2017 for Manchester by the Sea, which debuted in theaters before appearing online (and did win three Oscars that year - a first for a streaming production).

And next month you'll hear yowls from broadcasters when Peacock - the new Comcast NBCUniversal comedy streaming service - overhauls traditional timing by running its late night broadcast stalwarts several hours earlier than their historic time slots. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers will stream shortly after they are recorded each evening (at 8 and 9 p.m. ET, respectively) - well before the shows are telecast via broadcast affiliates at about 11:35 p.m. and 12:35 a.m. ET.

All of this is unfolding during a period when timing is being disrupted by countless and unexpected factors. South by Southwest (SxSW) is still scheduled to start in Austin in the next few days. But Apple, which was planning to bring some of its new streaming productions to the fest, has pulled out of the agenda, as has Netflix, Amazon Studios and Facebook. Separately, the annual MIPTV (Marché International des Programmes de Télévision) video programming market in Cannes (scheduled to begin in late March) has been canceled completely. COVID-19 coronavirus was blamed for those decisions.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Peacock

Too bad the virus's arrival coincided with the events' timing. These cancellations portend significant changes in future distribution schedules for some shows.

What makes the timing and release scheduling even more important is that it comes amid the growing crossover between theatrical and made-for-video distribution. That represents a separate topic for constant debate, especially among the various Academies (TV and Motion Picture) and unions. Implicit in all of these discussions is the uncertainty of how, where and when viewers will consume their preferred programming.

The Peacock plan to air NBC late-night shows marks the first time that new "live" TV programs will stream before their linear airing - a point of serious contention for local TV affiliates who not only face potential viewership loss but also ad revenue if late-night ratings decline. Viewers who are watching the streamed "late night" shows during prime time will NOT be watching regular TV schedules. In addition, Peacock availability comes smack against YouTube viewing, where the shows are freely available, with other ads. (Early streaming may only be available to Peacock Premium viewers.)

Dealing With Minutes and Hours, Not Months and Years

Both the streaming services' Oscar stunts and the NBCU late-night show plans underscore that timing has become a much more precision process. In the earliest days of pay TV and home video, it was all about "windows," a rigorous scheduled process to make shows available sequentially (months apart) on pay-per-view, on-demand, videocassettes or discs well before release on linear networks such as Home Box Office or Showtime eventually on free over-the-air channels. At one time there were even regulatory timetables for pay TV carriage.

Then, as now, it was all about maximizing revenue during each window. With the rise of digital media consumption, Nielsen has deemed that "appointment viewing" is now rare, except for live sports and special events (such as the Oscar telecast). The ratings seer says that screen time largely represents a shift of attention between platforms - since most viewers cannot add much to their current media consumption capacity, now often totaling about 12 hours per day (including audio and social media as well as video in all its formats).

So - if you have a moment - let me add one more "grumpy old man" complaint: why do people still put parentheses around area codes? We live in a 10-digit phone number country. The extra key strokes for typing (202) 456-1111 are irrelevant. Just call 202 456 1111 if you have a complaint. That number is in the ET zone.

Just remember to spring ahead, although the digital clock in your handset will save you the trouble. And your DVR will record your shows - at whatever times they appear.

Gary Arlen
Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.