Prime Time Still Key for US TV Networks

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As the live TV audience continues to fall in favour of on demand services, and advertisers commit less of their budget to buying prime time ad-slots upfront, providing viewers with the option to watch online is now an essential part of US TV network strategies.

However, the VOD offerings of American broadcasters are still heavily influenced by linear TV and the related ad revenues. In the first of a series of articles exploring video on demand around the world, I examine how the prime time schedule still impacts on online viewing, illustrated with an analysis of CBS.

The result feels like it is a support guide for the live schedule, rather than a destination to watch content. In order to provide a credible challenge to OTT services such as hulu, US TV networks will have to work harder to engage with their digital audience. Engaging with the digital audience was a core principle in our recent collaboration with Channel 4 to create All 4.

Family Watching TV in 1958

A family watching TV in 1958. By Evert F. Baumgardner (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Live television viewing in the USA is huge. 90% of the US population watch an average of 35 hours live TV a week, with audiences peaking between 8pm and 10pm. Prime time TV is an essential place for advertisers to engage with consumers.

Ad-funding the prime time schedule is major source of revenue for TV networks. In 2013, a single 30-second ad-slot during The Big Bang Theory at 8pm on Thursday night cost $326,000. That’s $6.5 million for a half hour show with 10 minutes of advertising.

However, network dominance is being challenged by OTT subscription services such as Netflix, whose favourable price points, convenience and variety of content have made them especially popular among young adults and families with children. Unconstrained by the traditional TV schedule, the box-set ‘binge-viewing’ experience of these services allows audiences to immerse themselves in the world of the show. Research by Thinkbox in the UK suggests that this escapism that this brings is what makes these services so appealing.

The TV networks respond by reiterating their position as the first place viewers can watch the latest episodes of their favourite shows. This influences the content strategy and design of broadcaster VOD. These services position themselves as places for catching-up on the live TV schedule, setting the expectation that latest content is what users come to the site for. This is demonstrated by CBS, where the latest and upcoming episodes of primetime shows are given priority throughout the product.

CBS Home2


To avoid undermining the value of ad-slots, the prime time schedule gets priority, with content arriving online arriving at least an hour after broadcast.

VOD products also play a role in drawing viewers back to the live TV schedule. On CBS, shows are consistently labelled with their particular time and day for broadcast, anchoring them to their place on the prime time schedule. Each show belongs to a specific time and day. Elementary, for instance, belongs to 10pm ET on Tuesdays. Indeed, fans of the show may argue that 10pm on a Thursday belongs to Elementary.

As well as reinforcing the live schedule, CBS attempts to build the relationship between audiences and the shows which define the network’s identity. Episodes live within show branded hubs, alongside highlights clips and promo content through which the viewer can re-live key moments. Placed within this context, the show becomes more than a list of episodes, and the network is able to appropriate it as part of its brand identity. The show and the network are blended into one. If Thursday nights belong to Elementary, they also belong to CBS.

CBS Elementary2


US TV networks are adapting to audience demand for convenience and choice, providing catch-up on the latest episodes of top rated shows. However, the need to maintain live audience figures to attract ad revenue has a big influence on the VOD product strategy. Network VOD reinforces the role of live TV at the centre of the viewing experience. Prioritising the latest broadcast episodes and signposting regular time slots anchors content to the live schedule, while show branded hubs define and add value to the network brand.

The focus appears to be directed as much towards supporting and promoting content on the established linear schedule, as providing a place to watch content. To meet the challenge of OTT subscription services, TV Networks need to provide a more compelling and engaging product for viewers in the digital space.

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