Here’s how much streaming has become part of American TV culture: Any show a viewer wants to watch is available to be streamed on one platform or another, whether that’s Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video or other services, such as CBS All Access.
That means the real questions for viewers are: Which platform has the show you want to watch and how many episodes are available? In many cases, all episodes of a show’s current season aren’t available because the companies that own them are holding out in order to make more money in the syndication sale, whether that’s to subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) outlets, broadcast, cable or some combination of the three.
While that financial reasoning makes perfect sense to media companies, it can create a confusing experience for viewers.
“That’s what these on-demand services give you—unprecedented choice to watch something you want to watch when you want to watch it,” says Dan Cryan, senior director, broadband media, IHS Inc. “If you can’t find the show you were looking for, odds are you will be able to find something else to watch. There are very few shows on television that are like Game of Thrones—shows that represent cultural tipping moments.”
Of the top-rated shows on television among adults 18-49 in the live-plus-seven ratings season-to-date, according to Nielsen, all the shows that aren’t available on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Instant Video air on CBS. That includes The Big Bang Theory, Scorpion, Life in Pieces, NCIS: New Orleans, Mom, Supergirl, Mike & Molly, Limitless, 2 Broke Girls and NCIS: Los Angeles.
All of those shows are available, however, on CBS All Access, the network’s streaming platform that costs $5.99 per month. Shows produced by CBS, such as NCIS: Los Angeles and Limitless, are available in full on CBS All Access, while shows produced by other studios—such as The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Supergirl, Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls, all of which are produced by Warner Bros.—only have seven episodes available, and those aren’t necessarily the most recent seven.
Five “stacked” episodes is the industry standard, with a 35-day window of availability on most shows, says Marc DeBevoise, executive VP and GM, CBS Digital Media, CBS Interactive.
Viewers do have the ability to watch those shows on streaming platforms even if they don’t subscribe to CBS All Access. Hulu includes them in their listings, forwarding viewers to network websites to watch the most recent four episodes, and services such as Amazon and iTunes usually offer shows for a per-episode or per-season fee. But getting all episodes of a series that’s currently on the air in one place is less likely, unless the provider has paid for it, the way Hulu has done with Fox’s mega-rated Empire. (The hip-hop soap also set a cable syndication deal April 14 with TV One.) Past seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, TV’s top-rated scripted show, can be found on Netflix, and the current season is available on AMC.com.
Swim With the Current
While the past episodes of many shows are valuable, it’s current episodes that tend to drive traffic, at least on CBS All Access.
“We want to own as many past episodes as we can, but our consumption patterns show that viewers mostly watch current content,” says DeBevoise. “Some 60% of our viewership is current season on-demand, while 15% are watching streaming live TV; 25% of our traffic watches deep library content or past seasons.”
One of the main reasons all seasons of a show are not available on streaming services is the show’s preexisting syndication deals. When TV station groups or cable networks pay big per-episode license fees, they are loath to see those shows further exposed on streaming services.
“SVOD is just another platform on which to sell shows,” says DeBevoise. “It’s just about whoever pays the most for the show.”
That’s why CBS’ The Big Bang Theory is one of the hardest shows to find on streaming services—only seven current episodes are available on CBS All Access. That’s not coincidental: The Big Bang Theory is the top-rated off-net sitcom in syndication, where it does well and plays often on TV stations and on TBS.
It’s a similar situation for Modern Family, which airs on ABC and is produced by Twentieth Television. The most recent season of Modern Family is available on Hulu, and on Watch ABC for authenticated cable subscribers, but everyone else needs to watch older episodes on broadcast TV or on USA Network.
Still, those shows that offer limited streaming options tend to be the exception, not the norm.
“There are less than 10%-15% of shows in our 40-plus show stable to which we don’t have all of the rights,” says DeBevoise. “We’ve sold the back seasons of many of our shows, such as The Good Wife, to numerous providers.”
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.