Skip to main content

Demystifying the Viewer Path

When Vince Gilligan, the creator of AMC’s crime drama Breaking Bad, beat Netflix’s House of Cards for the Emmy Award, he made a surprising observation. Netflix, he told reporters, kept his show on the air.

Breaking Bad’s audience started small, but ultimately reached 10 million viewers for the series finale. Gilligan theorized that his show grew in popularity because as word of mouth spread, new audiences were able to find old episodes on Netflix, then join the growing realtime audience when it was back in season.

A few years later, the data has proven Gilligan correct. Viewers haven’t abandoned linear viewing in favor of non-linear, VOD and streaming options, as previously thought. Instead, the viewer path between the two distribution models points to a more complex ecosystem.

Some view cord-cutting as the trend that will kill television. The trouble with that assertion is that it runs contrary to the data. Millennials are the ones leading the cord-cutting charge, and yet millennials are watching more television than ever. So what’s really going on?

Put simply, we’re at the dawn of a new paradigm that reflects both a technological revolution in the way we distribute content as well as an equally powerful shift in consumer behavior. For now, it’s clear that cord-cutting is a nuanced and evolving phenomenon.

Consumers are already beginning to understand that networks typically reserve a show’s current season for linear broadcast, while at the same time making previous seasons available on streaming platforms like Netflix so that new audiences can catch up. Meanwhile, data shows that streaming originals have only added to a typical viewer’s queue, rather than replace network fare.

Historically, TV has been a zero-sum contest. Because programming was linear, a network won or lost the night; a show was a hit or it flopped. But that’s no longer true today because technology and consumer behavior are changing.

As we expand access to content through a variety of platforms, and consumers adapt to a new viewing paradigm, the nature of competition changes dramatically. Data shows that audiences find shows long after their initial release. Just as telling, shows like Netflix’s Jessica Jones and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D on ABC both brought in big audiences (4.8 million viewers and 6.8 million viewers, respectively) though they were released at the same time. In a linear TV world, two superhero shows would most likely split the audience. The data shows that new distribution methods enable viewing patterns that allow both shows to succeed.

These changes are good for content companies because they mean quality shows are more likely to find an audience sooner or later. What remains to be seen are the strategies content companies will develop to gather those audiences. In the meantime, the television industry must use data to tune in to the viewer path.

Charlie Buchwalter is president and CEO of crossmedia measurement firm Symphony AM.