The most important TV moment of 2013 didn’t even happen on television.
It came on Feb. 1 when Netflix made all 13 episodes of season one of “House of Cards” available online for its subscribers.
Social media and the Internet lit up the next two weeks with personal accounts of subscribers “binge-viewing” the Baltimore-made political thriller starring Kevin Spacey — fans streaming one episode after another until they had their fill.
Given that binge-viewing had been going on for years with DVDs, and that media habits started more than a half-century ago don’t end overnight, it would probably be an overstatement to call 2013 the year appointment television died. But it was definitely the year appointment TV was diagnosed as terminal.
The effects can be seen across the media landscape.
Public television viewers who can’t wait for season six of “Doc Martin” to start in February don’t have to hold off on seeing the cranky Brit doctor marry the mother of his child. They can go to Acorn.TV, sign up for a free month’s subscription, and watch the full season of one of public TV’s most popular comedies right now.
Meanwhile, in addition to books, diapers, shoes and baby food, Amazon.com is offering its own in-house-produced first-run series, with John Goodman and Clark Johnson, in the political comedy “Alpha House.” And you don’t have to wait on delivery; all you have to do is go to Amazon.com and become an Amazon Prime subscriber.
Live events, like a Ravens football game, are still communal media moments that demand everyone be in front of their TVs at a set time determined by other parties — in this case, the networks and the NFL. Ditto for live awards shows and finales of a few, rare long-running series.
But outside of such large, live TV happenings, the all-ruling power of the prime-time schedule, which has been the network TV template since 1948, has been broken by new distribution models that allow viewers to call the shots and tailor their viewing experiences to their wants and needs.
The sense that a tipping point has been reached in the way we watch TV is being felt from Hollywood, where online viewing is changing the kinds of stories that get to be told, to millions of U.S. homes where viewers find themselves unconsciously pushing imaginary fast-forward buttons on their channel changers during commercials when they happen to be watching live.
After “Breaking Bad” won the top Emmy as best drama in September, creator Vince Gilligan articulated the transformation being felt in the creative community.
“Television has changed a lot in six years,” Gilligan told reporters backstage at the Emmys, referencing the time his show had been on the air.
“I’m no expert on the sociological elements of it, but I’ve got to think a big part of what has changed is streaming video on demand, particularly with operations like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime,” he added. “I think Netflix kept us on the air. Not only are we standing up here [as Emmy winners], I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond season two. It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”
A.J. Rose, a Goucher College student majoring in media studies, found support for Gilligan’s sense of the role on-demand video played in keeping his series on the air — and how important such a nonlinear model is to the future of TV.
In a research paper this fall for a class I taught at the Towson-based liberal arts college, Rose interviewed 20 students who became avid fans of the show, and found that 15 of them watched the show on Netflix or illegally downloaded it online — rather than viewing it on the basic cable channel AMC. And those are viewers in the demographic most desired by network and cable programmers.
Trying to cash in on the appetite for binge-viewing in its own TV way, AMC is offering a marathon with every episode of “Breaking Bad” this holiday weekend. It will offer a similar marathon of “Walking Dead” episodes starting at 9 a.m. New Year’s Eve.
And it is not all about binge-viewing. Some of the shows are made available online on a one-episode-a-week schedule — mimicking the old, over-the-air, rollout model — rather than Netflix’s 13-episode drop. The fact that analysts are still debating the wisdom of the all-at-once release for “House of Cards” indicates how transitional a period we are in.
More evidence yet of the way online viewing is driving that change can be found in Nielsen now counting all viewing done in a 24-hour period as a prime metric — rather than just the “live” telecast itself.
Media change usually involves a period where the new media mimics what went before. TV started out in the late 1940s and early ’50s imitating radio, with many of the same stars in the same variety-show formats.
That’s one of the things that made the 13-episode drop on “House of Cards” seem like such a game-changing moment.
Amazon has been rolling out “Alpha House,” which is created and produced by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, at the rate of one episode a week, hoping for a more sustained buzz about the series. I don’t think they received that, but I believe that’s more a problem with the series than the marketing of it.
Acorn, which is the digital subscription channel of Maryland-headquartered RLJ Entertainment, offered season six of “Doc Martin” one episode a week starting in October, though now that the season has ended, it is available all at once on demand.
“The recent exclusive U.S. premiere of ‘Doc Martin, Series 6’ was a record-setter for Acorn TV with more than a quarter of a million views during its eight-week run,” said Miguel Penella, CEO of RLJ Entertainment, in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “Since last December, Acorn TV has more than doubled its subscriber base…”
While Netflix has declined to discuss viewing for “House of Cards,” its report for the first quarter of 2013, when the series ran, said that the service added about 2 million streaming subscribers. That brought its total to 29.2 million.
Baltimore photographer and blogger David Hobby was one of those subscribers who was there when “House of Cards” arrived in February.
His tweets chronicle his experience devouring the series.
Late night Feb. 1: “Quick question: Does seven episodes in a row count as binge-watching? #HouseOfCards.”
Early morning Feb. 2: “Yo @Netflix. Releasing all 13 episodes of #HouseOfCards at once is like having a 2-lb bag of Ruffles in the pantry. Not always a great idea.”
Later on Feb. 2: “12 down, one to go. #HouseOfCards #Bender #NoSleep #ChoresNotDone #EyesTwitchy #TwentyMinuteBreak.”
As 2013 comes to an end, Hobby says he is virtually all on-demand viewing.
“I think I’m long past the tipping point [of on-demand versus appointment TV viewing], mostly because it protects me against investing time in something that might turn out to not be very good,” says the author of “The Strobist” blog.
With a new series, “I’m more likely to give it a season to establish itself as being great and hear that from a lot of people, and then jump in,” the former Sun photographer explained. “And once I do, I know it’s going to be worth it. And I’ll also be able to watch it as a season rather than piecemealing it out.”
Last week, Hobby said he was binge-watching the HBO series “Rome” – for the second time. He was doing it to make the time go faster on the treadmill as the weather forced him to do his daily 10 miles of walking indoors.
And will he be there for season two of “House of Cards,” when it arrives on Valentine’s Day?
Hobby said he and his wife have made out-of-town plans for Feb. 14.
“But I know me well enough,” he said, “to know I might watch the first three or four episodes at 2 in the morning on the 15th.”
The year appointment television died
Is anyone still letting the networks, cable channels tell them when to watch?
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in "House of Cards," one of the online series in 2013 that is changing the way we watch TV. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix / September 19, 2013)
The most important TV moment of 2013 didn’t even happen on television.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER
David Zurawik has been The Baltimore Sun's TV critic since 1989. His writings on TV and media have appeared in such publications as Esquire magazine and American Journalism Review. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, and an M.A. in specialized reporting (on popular culture) from the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of The Jews of Prime Time (Brandeis University Press), a look at 50 years of Jewish characters and identity on network TV. He has also been with WYPR-FM (88.1) radio since 1994 and can be heard Thursday mornings at 7:30 doing a weekly "Take on Television" report.