Like all forms of popular entertainment, the final moniker of success for a streaming or limited series produced for an online platform, cable service, or broadcast television network is audience, audience, audience. How large, or small, the collective viewership for the program is determines whether the show is a hit or a miss, a smash or a bust.
Having covered the selling and production of episodic programming in Part One and Part Two of this series, we now focus on the all-important third phase: distribution. Public exposure, and, hopefully, consumption, in the streaming and broadcast universe. In short, finding your audience.
The roadmap for a producer to master this trick has changed considerably in the last several years. A decade ago, 90 percent of television households subscribed to cable TV, and the top cable networks were televising original programs to an audience of millions every night. Today, with just a handful of exceptions, most original shows are streaming series.
In 2023, nearly 40 percent of television households spend more time streaming than watching pay/cable and broadcast TV. And the broadcast and production industry is adapting accordingly. However, it is important for content creators and producers to remember that this is still a three-horse race. Currently, cable represents around 30 percent of viewership, and broadcast accounts for about 25 percent of all television views.
The manner in which a series is distributed is essentially based on how it is produced. When the program is produced through a leading streamer like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, it is seen on that platform. If the show is produced for a cable network like HBO or Showtime, that’s where you’ll find it. And if the series is a production of a traditional broadcast network, it will be on that network’s lineup.
Whether a series is wholly-owned, or only licensed, by the streamer, cable company, or network, is also a factor in how the program is seen. When the distributor has full ownership they are also producer, and they have complete control over the series. Where it is seen, first-run or syndication, how many seasons, how many episodes in a season. And for streamers, how the episodes are released. For several weeks over the course of a season, or in a “binge-drop” in as little as a day. Wholly-owned programming goldmines include “Squid Game” and “Stranger Things” for Netflix, and “Game of Thrones” for HBO.
On the other hand, when a show is licensed, the streaming platform pays the show’s producer for the rights to air the show on that platform for a predetermined period of time. The streamer gets much more content with less upfront production costs. A good example is “The Magicians” on Netflix. Also, for years, the broadcast networks have done licensing deals, saved money upfront, and still hit paydirt with hits like “CSI” and “Modern Family.”
So, at the end of the day, after all the work and commitment in bringing a series to life, it’s all about finding that audience. That’s the signpost to success in producing a long-form hit.