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Traditional TV-watching thing of the past?

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Netflix series such as Orange Is the New Black are challenging conventional TV.

BARBARA NITKE / NETFLIX Enlarge Image

Netflix series such as Orange Is the New Black are challenging conventional TV.

TORONTO -- 'Tis the season for TV binge-watching.

Sure, the holidays are for family, friends and spreading good cheer, but true TV addicts see any consecutive stretch of days off as prime time to dive into a marathon viewing session of buzzy shows they missed.

There's no question 2013 was the year that cemented the phenomenon of back-to-back blitzes, and traditional TV broadcasters say they're working to offer even more options in 2014.

Bingeing is here to stay and if you weren't among those who indulged over the past 12 months, you were likely out of the loop, says TV expert and pop culture professor Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"If you didn't know how Orange Is the New Black's first season ended within two weeks you were really kind of out of it," says Thompson, crediting Netflix with the "brilliant" plan of releasing the entire season online at once.

"People are willing to give you a spoiler alert up unto a point.... (After that) their attitude is: 'If you're so lazy to have not taken the 13 hours to binge-watch this yet, it's not my fault."'

Netflix has certainly been at the forefront of the phenomenon, more recently making the Breaking Bad finale on good old-fashioned broadcast television a smash by allowing latecomers to binge-watch past seasons online, thereby swelling the final TV audience to record numbers.

Broadcast networks say they are getting into the game, too, with Global recently announcing its own live streaming service with full-season access to top shows where only a few episodes had been available before.

Global Go for iOS, Android and web, offers live TV and entire seasons for up to 60 days after the finale. However, it requires users to sign in, and currently only permits access to subscribers of Shaw Cable, Shaw Direct, Rogers Cable, Cogeco Cable, Telus Optik TV, Eastlink Cable and Source Cable.

David Purdy, senior vice-president of content for Rogers Communications, says networks are eager to tap into the binge-watching phenomenon.

"That's the tip of the iceberg," Purdy says of Global's on-demand addition, which includes the current seasons of 14 shows.

"What you'll see is CTV and City and CBC follow suit and so I believe in 2014 we'll see full-season stacking rights on most of the prime time main network broadcast shows"

The current batch of CTV's The Mentalist, as well as the Saving Hope and Played, are already available on the CTV Go app, which launched last month with promises of more shows on the way. However, it too requires authentication -- in this case for users to be Fibe and Bell Satellite subscribers.

Purdy says 2014 will be "the watershed moment" where access to complete current seasons of hot shows will be the norm.

"We've always had it on pay TV but we've never had it on broadcast television," he notes, adding that as much as 30 to 40 per cent of viewers of certain City shows tune in after the original broadcast.

"Broadcasters were concerned, and quite frankly a little reactionary, in the sense they wanted people to watch the original broadcast."

Things changed with a ratings system known as C7 firmly taking root -- a ratings measurement that includes viewers who caught a show within seven days of the original broadcast, whether they belatedly watched through on-demand, a personal video recorder or online.

Purdy says recent industry chatter now surrounds extending the count even further than seven days, which would make full-season streaming even more palatable to broadcasters.

Nevertheless, media futurist Robert Tercek questions how adept broadcasters are in assessing and meeting viewer demands.

Despite any claims of innovation they may make, the truth is they are all playing catch-up with Netflix and a growing number of online providers, says the L.A.-based tech expert.

"Television is shifting really fast and the TV companies are not at the helm, they're not driving the shift. The shift is happening to them," says Tercek, formerly president of digital media at OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, and ex-senior vice president of digital media at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Tercek derides the ubiquitous broadcast mantra "TV everywhere" as "going nowhere."

"It's a cumbersome system where you have to log in and authenticate -- and it's double authentication, you have to prove you're a cable subscriber and you have to log in to the channel, it's a hassle," he says, drawing from his experiences south of the border.

"In the U.S., it's been an unmitigated disaster. The channels are spending somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million a year to run these services, they get no revenue from them, they're not making money on it, they're spending money and no one's watching."

He says that whereas Netflix is focused on increasing subscribers, and therefore satisfying customers, broadcasters are focused on making money and maximizing revenue.

"They don't know how to build software and they don't really care about customers," Tercek complains.

"If they cared about customers they wouldn't be drilling customers for $80 a month. This is an industry that routinely abuses their customers so they're not going to change that now. They've crippled the digital services deliberately to keep people paying for television. They wouldn't even offer this stuff if Netflix didn't exist."

Still, he dismisses doomsday predictions of mass cord-cutting -- viewers cancelling their cable TV in favour of watching content on the Internet or free over-the-air signals.

The hurdle remains the fact sports is largely not available anywhere other than live broadcast television, he says, but that too could change.

"Right now the primordial fear of the pay TV ecosystem is that somebody like Google or YouTube will come along and bid a massive amount for NFL rights," says Tercek, noting that would result in a "giant exodus of subscribers from pay TV."

In Canada, Purdy promises that more mobile sports options are on the way.

He says Rogers' $5.2-billion deal with the National Hockey League makes sure the games will stream on any mobile device, including tablets and smartphones, in addition to PCs and gaming consoles.

"And we're not the only game in town. I think you'll see the other vertically integrated players pick up the rights they need to deliver TV anywhere," he says, adding that Rogers is talking to CBC about securing rights to FIFA and the Olympics to make even more sports available online.

"I truly think this is the year where it just explodes."

Tercek is skeptical of suggestions that broadcast TV remains healthy, insisting "the endgame is in sight."

"The audience for prime time TV in the United States has dropped by 50 per cent in the last decade. I mean, it's vanishing before our eyes," he says, noting that Netflix shows including House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are recognized as just as good as slick premium cable shows.

"Anybody under the age of 30, they don't subscribe to pay TV -- they just get their video on the Internet."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 D3

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