LOS ANGELES — Cars are living rooms; phones are TVs. Streaming has become mainstream. And binge-watchers' insomnia is a thing.
Don't look now, but in the entertainment sphere, revolution is the new normal. Freedom of choice is creating new habits in viewers, new chaos in the industry. Viewers are increasingly curating content without relying on the prime-time program grid, binge-viewing and playing catch-up on DVR and video on demand. In the digital era, opinions vary on what constitutes a hit.
And there's no telling where the next superior show may appear.
"Quality television is platform-agnostic," Television Academy President Bruce Rosenblum recently declared when announcing the 2014 Emmy nominees. We don't care where we have to go to find it — Netflix or network — as long as it's good.
The majority of us still watch scheduled TV programs, but more and more of us are time-shifting, via digital video recorder, video on demand or streaming.
Researchers at CivicScience find 47 percent of U.S. viewers still watch scheduled TV, but 23 percent watch via DVR after the broadcast, and 17 percent primarily view via online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.
This is a sore point for the networks, who have prodded Niel-sen to change the measurement rules to include delayed viewing, up to a week or even a month after a live broadcast. They're experimenting with "live plus three-day" numbers, "live plus seven-day" numbers, and more.
At the TV critics' press tour here last week, NBC researcher Alan Wurtzel begged critics not to report morning-after Nielsen results, but to wait for the three-day or week-later results, when cumulative viewing across platforms is counted. A show that looks like a disaster after its premiere can turn into a relative hit when the DVR and VOD results are counted.
For instance, "Blacklist" this season averaged a 2.9 rating the day after it aired, Wurtzel said, but the three-day count gave it "a 55 percent bump, because that's a combination of DVR and VOD." When the full week is counted, "Blacklist's" rating rises to a very respectable 5.9.
Similarly, FX announced it will no longer release overnight ratings, noting 28 percent of the audience for "Sons of Anarchy" in its first season (2008) watched via DVR, while fully 54 percent of the audience watched last year's sixth season via DVR.
Showtime observed that only 32 percent of "Homeland's" 7 million viewers last year watched live; 68 percent time-shifted. "True Detective" grew 25 percent in the live plus three-day measurement.
"The live/same day statistic short-sells the bigger story," said Julie Piepenkotter, FX data keeper.
"We feel your pain," Piepenkotter told critics, noting the flood of data. With consumers' growing reliance on DVRs, the only real relevance of same-day ratings data is for sports/live events, she said.
"If you were a sports reporter, you wouldn't report the winner based on the third-inning score," said CBS data guru David Poltrack.
Clearly we're watching more than ever, but unleashed from the networks' program grid. And the networks want a fairer count.
Some kinds of programs lend themselves to delayed viewing. Will Somers, a statistician at Fox, said drama in particular gets a huge lift (60 percent across the four networks) when measured across seven days.
What to watch, or delete?
Increasingly, streaming technology isn't just for the young. NBC's Wurtzel cited "the rise of the smartphone, the phone that enables you to have a good video experience." The mainstreaming of streaming is a proven data point. "It hardly existed in 2008. Today half of the population has it. And that's definitely going to grow by the end of the year."
The result is more pressure than ever to stay abreast.
As our phones, tablets, laptops and TVs accumulate shows and make recommendations based on our past picks, as Twitter alerts us to funny clips and cute animal videos, we are perpetually behind and over-entertained.
If the backlog on your Comcast video on demand is matched by your long Netflix queue, you know this firsthand. (Can't find anything? There's an app for that. Queue sorters are all the rage. But if you had time to set that up, you'd have time to watch the shows.)
The gear is changing, the measurements are shifting, and so is the way we live: A major global study just concluded that we no longer argue about what to watch, we argue about what to delete.
How much can you store? That's one question, but the more germane one may be, how much can you absorb?
In today's new TV tech, a new level of freedom comes with new pressure to stay current. Consumers are increasingly at liberty to watch what they want, when they want, and where they want. There is no "away time"; you are equipped to watch on whatever device is handy. The pace of change means learning new venues, gizmos, lingo, even passwords.
The networks have figured out that advertising their VOD offerings works. Teasers for video on demand for new programs reportedly have a higher conversion rate than traditional promos.
Rise in mobile viewing
At the same time, there's been a huge leap in "authenticated viewing" of broadcast shows from channels subscribed to via cable or satellite network — that is, shows you watch after signing in to confirm that you are a cable/satellite subscriber.
TV Everywhere is such an authenticated viewing system. (The apps include HBO Go, Watch ESPN, Cartoon Network, CNBC and Syfy; cable and satellite provider branded apps include Comcast's Xfinity TV Go, Time Warner Cable's TWC TV and Dish Anywhere.)
Nearly a quarter of U.S. pay-TV households now access TV Everywhere content across their mobile devices and browsers.
Online video consumption is also growing.
Daily time spent on mobile devices is now outpacing TV in the U.S. for the first time, according to a newly released 2014 AdReaction study from Millward Brown.
The average multiscreen consumer now spends more time staring at her smartphone screen than her TV screen. In fact, U.S. multi-screen consumers spend 151 minutes a day looking at a smartphone, 147 watching TV, 103 minutes on a laptop/PC and 43 minutes on a tablet.
Multitasking is also a new normal: 84 percent of consumers use smartphones while watching TV. Counterintuitively for older generations, research finds the more devices in play, the higher the level of engagement.
NBC's Wurtzel notes fully 45 percent of the consumption of "Parks and Recreation" by 18-24-year-olds is on digital platforms. "They're watching the same show that people are watching live," he said, "but they're watching it in a very, very different way."
And advertising is moving online. Digital ad spending — for the first time in U.S. history — has trumped money spent for advertising on broadcast TV. (A study released by the Interactive Advertising Bureau in April shows that $42.8 billion was spent on online advertising in 2013 — up 17 percent from 2012 — compared to a total of $40.1 billion spent on broadcast television.)
Some predict the end of advertising as we know it, thanks to the ability of streaming services to pinpoint tastes, demographics and even moods. The same technology that lets Comcast, Netflix and Amazon make personal recommendations of shows or movies that match your tastes also enables advertisers to tailor commercial messages to you. Are you a household that shops for diapers and minivans or are you in the market for world travel and fine jewelry? They know which commercial message to beam your way.
Some say the subscription-based model, free of advertising, will eventually be a threat to the conventional TV networks. Net-flix CEO Reed Hastings has said that the company has no plans to introduce commercials.
The TV ratings system is changing to keep pace.
This fall, Nielsen will count anyone watching TV on digital devices as part of the audience. The company says its new measurement system will know if a TV show was viewed on a tablet or on the television, whether it was viewed live or days later, how many days elapsed, and whether to give full credit for advertising or count the viewing as purely digital. (Nielsen is also gathering demographic data on Twitter users. )
The change can't come soon enough for the networks, who feel Nielsen punishes them by undercounting delayed viewing.
Binge-viewing took hold in the third quarter of 2011, when the early seasons of three critically acclaimed TV series became available for streaming on Netflix: "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead."
More recently, Netflix instant releases including "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black" have made the binge phenomenon so prevalent it has been given a name in some studies. A Piksel binge viewing survey measured "binger's insomnia" — defined as staying up way too late to catch the first 15 minutes of the next episode of a show that's being binge-watched. Sixty five percent of respondents said they have done just that.
All of this change is happening as TV programming gets better and better. The shows get richer, yet the process of absorbing content has never been more complicated.
Watching TV has never been a less passive experience.
Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ostrowdp
By the numbers
The research company CivicScience analyzed TV watching habits, and these are among the findings it released in May:
— Joanne Ostrow