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Networks Fiddle While New Series Burn

It's summer, and time to open the windows. TV networks, looking for a hot original hit in an increasingly crowded schedule of new shows, are throwing traditional scheduling to the wind in a bid to stand out from the crowd.

With new hit shows getting rarer and harder to define, programmers across the cable and broadcast dial, are willing to shake up traditional release patterns in a bid to command precious viewer attention. This year alone, shows from USA, Lifetime, CBS and a host of others come with more than a title and a time slot—they often promote that they have full episodes available on other platforms before, during and after the traditional release window. Even a newer player like Netflix, releasing whole seasons in bulk, got attention by putting the third batch of Orange Is the New Black out six hours ahead of schedule on June 11.

“When we look at scheduling now, we don’t just look at the linear feed,” says Chris McCumber, president of USA Network. “We look at where else is this asset going to exist and how are we making sure that all these platforms are working in concert with each other.”

Adjusting windows is not meant to be a quick fix, he notes. “We take the long view on this stuff,” McCumber says. “This is about original programming assets, not just for one season but many seasons.”

As networks face increasing competition, at least in terms of mindshare, from streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and stand-alone OTT plays, they have put increasing emphasis on TV Everywhere. While the coalition takes plenty of incoming fire from the likes of John Malone and David Zaslav, two of the moguls enamored with the “TV Everywhere is TV Nowhere” gloss, the fact is that it is gradually getting traction. A report by Adobe Systems found that the percentage of pay-TV subscribers accessing TV Everywhere content will reach 17.5% by year-end, up from just 4.4% in the first quarter of 2013.

Getting shows onto multiple devices and with a frictionless user experience is a monster feat and even partisans will admit that more work needs to be done. But the loosening of traditional release restraints has forced a much-needed rethink of traditional scheduling.

“It’s our job to kind of demystify the complexity of those windows and try to make the user experience and the consumer communications all clear as to what the consumer is getting,” said Allison Moore, NBCUniversal’s general manager and executive VP of TV Everywhere, Content Distribution during B&C and Multichannel News’ On-Demand Summit in New York on June 9. “TV Everywhere exists so we can watch TV on our terms.”

A Digital Sneak Peak

Releasing shows digitally ahead of their linear premiere is an increasingly popular tactic, one that premium networks already indulge in liberally thanks to their lack of advertising. USA has been among the chief proponents of this strategy, trying a variety of different strategies for a pair of upcoming series Mr. Robot and Complications.

For its hacker drama Mr. Robot, which has already garnered a hefty amount of buzz from premieres at the SXSW and Tribeca film festivals, USA has set one of the broadest pre-linear premieres in cable TV history. It is making the pilot available on more than 20 different platforms ahead of its June 24 premiere. McCumber argues that Mr. Robot is such a departure from USA’s usual fare that he wanted to get as many different people in front of the show, particularly those have never sampled USA programming before.

“It’s so important right now the marketing of a show and the launch of a show to have great word of mouth,” he said, noting that Mr. Robot has been viewed more than 800,000 times already.

Research done by USA has determined that viewers exposed to a show pre-linear are four times more likely to stay with a series. “It points to the way in which viewers are watching and the way we can get them invested in our shows,” McCumber says.

For Complications, which launches June 18, USA will premiere the first two episodes on TV then make the third episode available on VOD that evening. “Viewers tend to get invested in a show after about three episodes,” explains McCumber, who said the decision is based on the content of that episode as well.

“It’s so crucial right now, given the amount of competition that you have to find ways to cut through the clutter and reach that audience,” continues McCumber. “By utilizing both linear and non-linear together, having them work hand in hand, we think is one way to go.”

USA is not the only network trying this strategy. Travel Channel released the entire first season of its upcoming series Big Crazy Family Adventure on June 14, a week before its June 21 debut. In announcing the move, Travel president Shannon O’Neill said the network “recognized that with Big Crazy Family Adventure we had a compelling and beautiful series, with a continuous story arc that makes perfect sense for this type of promotion.”

Despite a hefty amount of critical praise coming in, Lifetime’s UnREAL had a lackluster debut on June 1, drawing just 815,000 viewers, before slipping to 707,000 viewers for its second episode. Shortly, after the premiere, Lifetime quietly made available the first four episodes of the Bachelor-like scripted series, hoping to raise the show’s profile and increase ratings.

And yet, as with the debate surrounding overnight ratings versus delayed and total-viewing stats, the network feels the linear rating is just part of the overall story.

Christian Drobnyk, Lifetime senior VP of programming strategy and acquisitions, said that pre-releasing episodes was always in the cards. “We wanted to see how the first episode performed before we pulled the trigger,” he said, noting that UnREALin the network’s youngest-skewing drama series through the first two episodes. “We feel UnREAL’s success is going to be driven partly by recruiting a younger group of new viewers to Lifetime.” These strategies also provide advertisers for a new way to reach consumers in an ever-fracturing marketplace. “The response has been very positive from the advertisers,” says McCumber. “They are looking, just as we are, to reach a dedicated audience.”

According to Rentrak, roughly 57 million households have access to VOD, up by about 2 million in the past year. Average time spent watching VOD has risen to 9.3 hours per month, about double the time spent just five years ago.

USA’s comedy Playing House, which will debut its second season later this summer, is using a unique rollout strategy. USA will make available new episodes on VOD prior to their linear airing for the entire season. The show’s stars, Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parhum, will be creating custom spots on behalf of clients that will run across VOD and on-air. “They work in concert with our advertisers to create this content,” says McCumber.

According to a recent Canoe study, VOD ads generated a 6% lift in attention, a 4% increase in the viewer’s desire to search out the advertised product, and a 14% boost in overall ad “likability.”

Is There Life After Air?

While some networks are pre-releasing shows to get more viewer attention, a few others have used SVOD deals to buttress programming that does not draw big ratings.

As CBS has pushed hard into summer scripted programming, the network has used unique deals with Amazon to help compensate for the predictably-lower ratings that summer fare gets. After debuting to a surprisingly high 3.3 rating among adults 18-49 in 2013, Under the Dome saw its ratings tumble in its second season. Another summer show, the Halle Berry-starrer Extant, performed even worse during its first season last summer. Yet both were renewed for new seasons this summer on the backs of the two shows’ SVOD deals with Amazon, which makes episodes available on the streamer four days after their broadcast run.

CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, in remarks made in last July at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Summit in Aspen, Colo., pretty much confirmed the Amazon deals are allowing CBS to invest heavily in little-watched shows. “It’s almost like the rating on CBS is secondary,” he said. “The shows are successful before they even get to the air.”

For the third year in a row, CBS will debut a new summer series in Zoo, based on James Patterson’s novel. CBS has a deal with Netflix that will put the entire season on the streamer once the show’s first season has concluded on CBS.

Manhattan, one of WGN America’s first original series, bagged a second season largely thanks to its deal with Hulu that puts new episodes on Hulu Plus the day after their WGN America airing. Manhattan’s first-run telecasts averaged 420,000 viewers on Saturday nights, jumping to 1.2 million total viewers in Nielsen live-plus-seven numbers.