Editorial Media 'release windows' are increasingly archaic, futile and hostile

Last week's Downton Abbey broadcast debacle, while not representative of the world's most acute problems, unnervingly illustrated one of the many ways that media companies fail to understand markets, technology and day-to-day consumer realities. The hit show ended its third season on December 25th with an extreme plot development. The season was broadcast only to its British audience, while American viewers were waiting until 2013 to clap their eyes on the latest round of shows. Problem was, of course, that the entire non-UK audience had the whole third season spoiled by instant social buzz and UK-generated web reviews of the final dramatic denouement.

If technology does nothing else, it destroys boundaries of all sorts -- between countries, time zones, populations, affiliations and cultural circumstances. Media companies that distribute their products as if those borders still held sway seem increasingly clueless and hostile to their ever more empowered audiences.

Theatrical release windows were developed in the movie industry to delineate markets and motivate purchases from consumers in different situations and preferences. Each of the main release stages (movie theater, on-demand, DVD, streaming) was meant to apply uniquely to a demand profile, with minimal overlap. But the walls between release scenarios have been eroded by technology, creating a messy overlap of the values previously contained within each scenario.

Two examples:

  • Home theaters have eaten into the exhibition business (movie theaters) thanks to HD screens as a middle-class commodity. Two legacy values of the theater experience -- big screens and great visuals -- have been swiped into the home. The average size of a newly purchased television is 44 inches. Those vast panels are driven primarily by pricey cable/satellite subscriptions, further disincentivizing their owners from driving through a rainy night to buy a $12 theater seat in which they can drink a $6 soda.
  • Mobile devices have undermined the on-demand movie business in hotel rooms. Here, the legacy allure of in-room movie rentals was founded on the desperation of a trapped, bored, unequipped traveler. Mobile connectivity solves that. Even if the hotel charges for WiFi (an indicator that you might have chosen the wrong hotel), paying for the platform instead of a single movie puts an unlimited number of in-room entertainment options onto a personal screen.

Both of these examples have matured over a long gestation period, gradually disrupting the very concept of release windows. But the media industries have actually carved out windowing scenarios more assiduously than ever. The BBC's ITV's Downton Abbey blunder is an example of time-based windowing, but without an obvious rationale. Presumably there were business and revenue reasons for the delayed licensing to US buyers, and only the BBC can answer whether those gains were worth angering more than 5 million American fans.

Time-windowing a global entertainment program according to national boundaries ignores a staggering degree of tech-induced world shrinkage and barrier dissolution. It is unknown whether the BBC ITV didn't consider that its show would be ruined for a huge cross-ocean audience, or didn't care. The choice seems to be between cluelessness and antipathy.

Consumer connectivity and rampant gadgetry appear to be driving TV rights-holders to extremes of windowing confusion that involve not only spans of time and geographic space, but also tangles of licensing agreements with multiple providers pumping shows into a labyrinth of home technologies and access plans.

Let's look at the hit TV show Parenthood, broadcast by NBC and currently in its fourth season. If you discover the show belatedly, you can soak up the first three seasons on Netflix or Amazon Prime. If you finish that binge right now, 11 episodes into the fourth season, you might find the most recent five episodes in an on-demand cable channel (as is the case on Time Warner). To get the season's first six shows you have to bring up the NBC website or tablet app. Thus equipped, you can bridge your way back to the TV if you watch fast enough.

This diversion is better than the pre-DVR rerun model where you waited until the summer off-season to watch episodes you carelessly missed when they were originally broadcast. In a mangled way, the various show providers have accommodated to random-access TV watching. But from the viewer's perspective, there is a resonance of insanity to the five-episode limit in Time Warner's on-demand channel, and the ensuing mad search for episodes. In the field of branded content, the shiniest brass ring is new addicted viewers. In the case of Parenthood and many entertainment properties, it is exactly those audiences who are treated the worst, driven through exasperating hoops to stay loyal.

The business irony is that migrated consumers -- those who have detached to some degree from the legacy viewing modes -- can be monetized more effectively than old-school cable/DVR watchers. When you catch up with back programming either in a cable company's on-demand locker or NBC's full-episode viewing app, you are forced to watch the commercials. No fast-forward in those controlled environments. I watched two Parenthood episodes with my wife on an iPad, and the entire stretch was sponsored by Visa. I saw 20 Visa commercials and can recite them to you. We talked about them. That is platinum advertising impact, the kind of coerced attention agencies dream about.

In the perpetual balancing act of supply and demand, it is crucial in the long run for suppliers to understand the nuances of demand. It is not enough for media owners to fathom that people love to watch movies and TV shows. Owners must understand how people want to consume media, and the cultural environment in which they do so. Failure to understand the matrix of supply and demand eventually becomes failure to hold your audience and sell your show.

So here's the memo, though it all should go without saying at this late stage:

  • National boundaries have been eroding for decades, and haven't existed for 15 years in the realm where most media consumers get their information. Don't window by geography.
  • In-home viewing quality rivals that of theaters, so why not try selling first-run product into our homes much sooner? Charge us for timely access, not for sticky floors and toxic popcorn.
  • Don't make us be detectives to find your show. Amazon vs. Netflix is their battle to fight. License everywhere. The most valuable asset is an addicted audience that can find its fix. Ubiquity is good.
  • Your product is infinitely replicable and shareable. Senseless windowing invites piracy. Piracy is not primarily about free content; it is about content living where the users live.

Happy viewing ... if you can get your hands on the movie or TV show you want to watch.


Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.

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