What you’ll be watching in 2014

Our professional TV watcher previews the year ahead
Netflix/Everett Collection

In 2014, more people than ever before will be watching television. And fewer than ever before will be watching it on a television set. The idea of “appointment television,” of watching a show when the networks (and advertisers) want you to, has been going downhill at least since the introduction of the VCR, but 2014 may be the year when the 30-year trend toward time-shifting and video-on-demand finally overtakes prime-time viewing, turning couch potatoes into … slightly different types of couch potatoes.

CBS and Fox recently pointed the way forward to the new status quo when their researchers revealed that some shows are a lot more popular than they seem to be. When you factor in the number of people watching within a 30-day window, seemingly unsuccessful new shows such as Hostages and Mom have twice as many viewers as initially reported, and hits are as widely viewed as the big smashes of the good old days. And that doesn’t even take into account the use of streaming services, not to mention the large number of people watching shows illegally.

So traditional TV providers enter 2014 struggling with a paradox: TV may be more popular than ever, but the real-time viewing that props up advertiser-supported TV is due to fall off a cliff. Networks briefly hoped Twitter and Facebook could encourage real-time discussion and therefore real-time viewing of shows, but it’s mostly not happening.

The upside for viewers is a tremendous amount of competition in 2014 for the only thing that can set a service provider apart: original TV series. Already companies like Amazon are expanding into original content with new shows unimaginatively titled Alpha House and Betas. But there’s no reason why it has to stop there: any entertainment company with an Internet presence could theoretically do the same and set up its own streaming service with its own shows.

It doesn’t really matter how popular these shows are; Netflix refuses to release ratings information about its shows, and has been willing to pick up shows like The Killing that have been too unpopular for regular TV networks. A company just needs original shows to show it’s a major player in the TV game: Amazon and other outlets are trying to do what cable channels like AMC did with their new shows, and get the kind of media attention and subscriber interest that you can’t get with reruns alone.

With new content, outlets can also negotiate licensing deals that go beyond the rules holding back streaming services in Canada and around the world. “The rights system in place for television and movies is old-fashioned,” says Joris Evers, director of global corporate communications at Netflix, in explaining why many shows are available on one version of Netflix but not another. “It’s built for regionally focused stations and theatres, rather than the Internet.” The way to move beyond the frustrations of licensing pre-existing shows—not to mention the knowledge that they can be yanked away at any time—is to invest more in original programming. That means, just as cable increased the number of places where a TV producer could sell his shows, the device era will expand the market even further.

There could also be an expanding pool of TV producers, in an era where movies are hard to make and harder to sell but television episodes are cheap and can be packaged and resold in an infinite number of ways. Sony Pictures announced recently it would be putting more emphasis on TV than film in 2014, and Harvey Weinstein, turning away from his habit of buying Oscars for medium-budget films, said recently that he plans to expand into TV production. He told the New York Times that “the way to add stability to the company is to be in the television business.” This means he can start buying Emmys instead of Oscars. But more importantly, it means television will be a much more competitive business than it was a few years ago, when a few big studios dominated.

Free from the necessity to watch one episode a week for 22 weeks, we’re also going to get ideas about TV production that go beyond the indefinite runs and stretched-out stories of traditional shows. The Weinstein Company and others have floated plans for more “event series,” a fancy term for what used to be called a miniseries. Other companies are experimenting with limited-run series, such as Marvel Entertainment, which is producing four different 13-episode series about four different heroes, followed by a team-up show.

The less-than-spectacular fare on prestige channels like HBO and Showtime has led some commentators to say that the “golden age of television,” in which The Sopranos and The Wire made it all right for culture snobs to enjoy TV, is over. But the number of quality TV shows hasn’t really decreased; it’s simply that every outlet has one or two, from the edgy FX with Archer and Louie, to BBC America (somewhat misnamed because its best show is the Canadian-made science fiction series Orphan Black), to the little-watched quasi-network the CW, which offers the best superhero show of our time in Arrow. In an era when CBS’s The Good Wife surpasses HBO dramas in quality, there is no hard-and-fast rule about where to find good television.

Not only will we see the best shows popping up in unexpected places, but the very idea of “branding,” of HBO being the place to go for quality programming or CBS the place to go for old-fashioned procedurals, may be in danger. The concept that a network needs a brand is rooted in an era when we watched networks. Today, we watch shows. As Netflix and Amazon and other companies prepare a programming slate for 2014, they’re not necessarily concentrating on one particular kind of show; in fact, it’s hard to tell from Netflix’s programming choices exactly what kind of audience they’re trying to reach or what kind of material they prefer. “Everybody gets their own personalized channel based on what they watch,” Evers says.

There might be a sense of a pyramid scheme in all these shows being produced at once. No one knows exactly how all of them will be paid for or how profitable they will be. Networks have argued that delayed viewing should be worth some ad revenue, but advertisers have been understandably reluctant to believe that any of those viewers are actually watching the commercials. And over on the streaming side, it’s hard to tell whether any shows are helping drive a lot of new subscriptions or making money in other ways; new shows like House of Cards come to Netflix, get a little media coverage for their first week of release, and then fade away. The big challenge will be whether the new models of television production can produce a big, sustainable hit series like The Big Bang Theory or The Walking Dead. Otherwise, the intersection of television with new media could make 2014 turn out to be the start of a bubble, much like the original online TV produced during the dot-com boom (anybody remember Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln?). There might be lot of talent, a lot of shows, and no way to make any of them profitable.