Still must-see TV: Don't give up on scheduled programming just yet

By Micah Mertes / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Tonight, “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and, most conspicuously, “Game of Thrones” return to HBO for new seasons, continuing the premium cable network’s well-established Sunday night lineup.
In the stream-it-later era, here is a prestigious block of appointment viewing.
Such scheduling blocks are increasingly rare because when a show is “on” isn’t really the question anymore. The question now is “When is it available?” Or, more to the point, “When can I stream at least five episodes of it in one sitting?”
Yet robust prime-time lineups persist. TV is still programmed, even as consumers are stacking episodes to create their own personalized programming that best suits their schedules.
In terms of ratings, HBO’s Sunday night lineup is a few notches below certain powerhouses at the major networks. ABC’s Thursday night block of Shonda Rhimes-produced shows — “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” (and now “The Catch”) — is a force to be reckoned with. CBS’s Tuesday night double-dip of “NCIS” and “NCIS: New Orleans” remains a criminally popular way to kill a few hours.
Each Shonda show gets around 10 million viewers by the end of a week. Each “NCIS” program gets between 15 million and 25 million viewers. “Game of Thrones” competes — it had as many as 20 million viewers for its season 5 finale. By the end of their most recent seasons, “Silicon Valley” reached 6 million and “Veep” 4.1 million.
Tom Nunan, who ran NBC Studios in the mid-’90s — must-see TV’s heyday — recalls a TV landscape packed with such lineups.

Illustrations by Matt Haney / The World-Herald

“Thursday night, for instance, had been a staple since the glory years of the early ’80s,” said Nunan, now a lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. “‘The Cosby Show,’ ‘Family Ties,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘Night Court’ and ‘Hill Street Blues’: That was a big stalwart of high-quality television,” Nunan said. “That was the event night of TV, and NBC had built that bulwark against all the other networks. Nobody wanted to compete against that lineup.”
In the ’90s, Nunan’s own NBC, the network that coined the “Must-See TV” brand, had one of the strongest lineups in TV history, offering some mix of “Mad About You,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Wings” and usually some stinker like “The Single Guy” or “Veronica’s Closet,” followed by the 9 o’clock drama (mostly “ER” but briefly “Homicide: Life on the Street”).
If you were a dedicated TV viewer at that time you cleared your Thursday night and sank your posterior deep into the collective couch with millions of other Americans. For three hours, the TV owned you. Unless you had the VCR set to record, you couldn’t stack the episodes to binge at a later date.
“I remember having to rush home just to see a particular episode of ‘Frasier’ or ‘Seinfeld,’” said Kwakiutl Dreher, associate professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “And I remember I used to get upset the next day when someone hadn’t watched the last episode of a show. ‘Why haven’t you watched it yet? Everybody should be home watching it!’”
Now Dreher waits. She loves watching “Scandal” but rarely on the night it airs. (“That show is not going to control me!”)
“There’s no longer that feeling,” she said. “And there’s a sense of comfort in knowing that whenever I want to consume my show, it’s right there for me.”
The day has pretty much passed when you’ve got to watch something the day it comes out.
“Much in the way that there don’t seem to be many water coolers that people congregate around to discuss TV,” Nunan said, “there are fewer lineups on linear cable or streaming that require people to watch them day-and-date to feel part of the cultural conversation.”
That’s not to say that event TV and those gotta-watch-it-now series have disappeared entirely. Many shows still put up huge numbers in their first-day ratings. AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the most popular cable show, averages around 13 million viewers each telecast, more than most broadcast network series. Another several million viewers will watch the show through DVR or on-demand in the following week.

Game of Thrones returns for its sixth season tonight. For all its hype, the show’s highest ratings ever drew just a little more than 4 percent of viewers, ages 18 to 49, a key demographic. (HBO photo)

Where to watch

“Game of Thrones,” “Silicon Valley” and “Veep” have their season premieres tonight on HBO, HBO Now, and HBO Go.

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As popular as “Game of Thrones” is — it’s HBO’s most-watched series ever — the majority of its viewers don’t watch it immediately. Its biggest same-day viewing to date was last year’s Season 5 finale, which averaged 8.11 million viewers. But by the time DVR, on-demand and HBO Go/Now figures were tallied, that number topped 20 million.
That’s a huge number for a dramatic series, especially one on cable, especially one in a time of peak TV, when pop culture vultures’ attention is segmented into thousands of microniches.
But compared with 20 years ago, that number is minor league.
The series finale of “Seinfeld,” for instance, scored more than 76.3 million live viewers. More than 40 percent of households that owned a television tuned in.
Go back further, to 1983’s “M*A*S*H” finale (105.9 million viewers). More than 60 percent of television-owning households tuned in.

It’s not just series finales, either. In the early ’80s, “M*A*S*H,” “Dallas” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” were drawing between 20 million and 30 million households each week, meaning as many as a third of TV households were tuning in.
The share of viewership has dwindled for everything ever since, save the Super Bowl, whose viewership has gone up but whose percentage of TV households has stayed flat. (A little less than half of American households watch the Super Bowl, about the same percentage as in 1985.)
Few television events outside the Super Bowl draw so many together. For all the hype surrounding the “Game of Thrones” premiere, the show’s highest ratings ever drew just a little more than 4 percent of TV viewers ages 18 to 49, the key demo.
Elsewhere, traditional TV viewing is slipping. About a quarter of American adults do not subscribe to cable or satellite TV services, according to a Pew study. And the cord-cutting trend is only accelerating.
Many consumers are opting instead for streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and HBO Now, the HBO subscription decoupled from cable. Almost half of consumers subscribe to at least one streaming service, and about 70 percent binge-watch, according to new data from Deloitte. The average binge is about five episodes per sitting.
Millennials actually spend more time streaming content than watching live programming. And time-shifted viewing (watching TV later via DVR or on-demand) is rising among all age groups.
All of this is to say that while we are watching more TV than ever, we are not all watching the same TV at the same time on the same device.
The communal nature of television as we knew it is gone. The bigger question teasing around the edges of this trend is: Have we lost something here?
“I think so,” said Nunan. “Because we’re already living in such isolated, shutoff times with our devices. These communal events, whether it was broadcast TV on Thursday nights or comedies on Saturday nights or whatever, I think it was a way to bring us all together, to make us more of a community.”
But maybe something hasn’t ended in American culture so much as evolved?
Hugh Curnutt, a critical media and cultural studies researcher at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, said he would make the distinction that “the communal nature of it does change more so than go away.”
“Too often when we think about the way media is evolving, we’ll try to figure out a way in which there is a clear break, and it’s, like, OK, people don’t watch TV like they used to anymore. But it can still be quite communal — just maybe not in the same way a Super Bowl party would be.”
Social media, live tweeting during the show, a community networked through their devices while watching. Fans arguing plot turns and spoiling spoilers in forums and threads and AV Club recap comment sections.
“That’s very much like the water cooler being present, right?” Curnutt said. “There’s a kind of conversation that goes on. There’s a social aspect to the television that didn’t exist before.”

Contact the writer: micah.mertes@owh.com, 402-444-3182, twitter.com/MicahMertes

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