The Resurgence of the Linear TV as a Viewing Experience

The surge in video-on-demand viewing options may lead you to believe that Linear TV is going obsolete… but is it?

We've been hearing it for the longest time: Linear TV is dying. Most recently, Dexter Goei, the CEO of Altice USA, the fourth-largest cable provider in the U.S. was asked if he can envision a day when cable TV “as we know it, doesn’t exist,” he answered, “For sure.”

Given how VOD (video-on-demand) services like Netflix, HBO Max, and Disney Plus continue to dominate the cultural conversation, it does seem like it’s only a matter of time before linear TV becomes a thing of the past.

But will it?

Because if you know where to look, there are clear signs that linear TV is not only surviving but is heading towards a resurgence. 

Will there be a place for linear TV in our digital future?

The answer is yes, and this blog post will show you why.

‘Linear TV’ defined

To make sure we’re on the same page, a little definition is in order. 

By standard definition, linear TV refers to the type of programming where programs are delivered on a set schedule—24 hours a day, seven days a week. In other words, linear live streaming runs sequentially from one program to another. 

Want to catch the latest thriller? You don’t get to choose the time to watch it; You watch it at the appointed time. If you miss it, tough luck—you’ll have to find another way to watch the show.

A fair warning: the term ‘linear TV’ doesn’t necessarily mean cable or satellite TV. ‘Linear TV’ is a consumption model, not a distribution model. In other words, while linear TV is traditionally distributed via satellite or cable services, it can also be delivered via OTT channels. 

With that out of the way, let’s address the proverbial elephant in the room:

Is linear TV dying?

If you mean ‘linear TV’ via the traditional business model (cable or satellite TV), then yes, there are telling signs it’s heading towards inevitable death.

But if you mean linear TV via online streaming, then the answer is a big NO. In fact, linear live streaming has never been stronger.

To put all that in context, let's briefly talk about the dying industry that is traditional television.

As of September 2020, there were 77.6 million pay-tv subscribers in the United States. This number is expected to drop to 72.7 million by 2023 and to under 70 million by 2024.

The culprit? You guessed it: The Internet.

With streaming services making way for more alternative viewing options, an increasing number of viewers are deciding to cancel their cable or satellite TV service.

Unsurprisingly, the decline in viewership has led to a considerable drop in TV advertising as well. According to a 2019 report by research firm Magna Global, global TV ad sales fell by 4%. The coronavirus pandemic dealt an even heavier blow as MoffetNathanson reports that aggregate TV advertising dropped by 28% in Q2 of 2020—an all-time high.

Traditional TV is not dying without a fight—and what that could mean for linear TV

To the surprise of many, cable TV viewership showed some signs of life in Q3 of 2020, with reports indicating a 3% increase in aggregate TV advertising.

There are three reasons for this. First, major sports franchises like the NBA, the NFL, and the MLB have resumed their seasons and returned to broadcasting on cable TV. Second, candidates in the 2020 elections relied on televised ad campaigns to bolster their candidacy. Lastly, some brands who had pulled out their advertising dollars during the pandemic’s early days have started buying TV ads again to cater to the pandemic-weary.

A study by PwC also shows that 68% of viewers in 2019 (up from 67% the prior year) are still sticking with pay-TV, with some respondents saying they’re “in a committed partnership” with their cable/satellite service. 

Does this mean that cable and satellite TV are going to stick around?

Not really. After all, the downward trend in traditional TV viewership over the last decade is too telling to ignore.

But the slight uptick in traditional TV viewership does speak a lot about our viewing habits —regardless of the medium used.

Is it browser fatigue?

Yes, it is. Call it decision fatigue if you like.

Did you know that Netflix subscribers spend an average of 18 minutes every day trying to decide what content to watch?

While a seemingly limitless content library has its charms, it makes content discovery a frustrating process for many viewers.  

This is a viewer pain point OTT providers would do well not to ignore. According to the same PwC report referenced earlier, 50% of streamers would cancel an OTT service with an overwhelming content library or a challenging content discovery system.

One millennial respondent from the aforementioned PwC study had this to say:

With my cable provider, it’s just easy to put the TV on, sit back and watch. With my streaming service, you have to search and search and search. There’s just so much. You spend more time picking something out than actually watching it.

Again, this doesn’t mean traditional TV will be around forever. But it’s predicted demise will not happen as fast as we previously thought. 

Why? Because, as already proven by multiple studies already referenced in this post, there will always be people who prefer the passive, “lean back” viewing experience.

Traditional TV might not last forever, but people who crave the linear TV experience have so much to look forward to. 

When it comes to delivering linear TV experiences via non-traditional routes, OTT platforms will have a lot to offer. Two big players in the space are Crackle “Always On” and Netflix.

Crackle “Always On”

In 2015, Crackle introduced their linear TV feature “Always On,” an ad-supported streaming video platform that works like a live TV network. Unlike most OTT platforms, “Always On” feels like traditional TV. As soon as the service is launched, a user can begin streaming programs based on a set schedule.

The service has an impressive lineup, featuring films from Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems, TriStar Pictures, and Sony Pictures Classics and TV shows such as Startup, The Oath, Sequestered, and Snatch.

Crackle has many advantages: It’s free, can be streamed anywhere and on numerous supported devices. The downside? It runs ads. However, considering that traditional TV has bombarded us with commercials for decades, who’s complaining?

Netflix “Shuffle Play”

Nothing triggers browsing fatigue more than scrolling through the Netflix dashboard. 

As one Redditor put it, “Netflix’s problem isn’t content, it’s decision fatigue.”

Netflix has heard the complaints, and they’re doing something about it.

Enter Netflix “Shuffle Play,” a feature that allows streamers to turn over the decision of what to watch next to the streaming platform’s recommendation engine. The feature, which was tested last year, is slated for a widespread launch in the first half of 2021.

During the initial announcement of the feature, Netflix execs say “Shuffle Play” will allow viewers to “skip browsing entirely, click one button, and we’ll pick a title for them just to play instantly.”

Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings jokingly called it the “I’m feeling lucky” button.

Given the platform’s powerful recommendation engine, Netflix will get real “lucky” once the “Shuffle Play” feature fully rolls out. For starters, they already have a ton of data on subscribers’ viewing behavior. Using that data with more intention, it looks like we’re about to see personalization in linear TV at an unprecedented level.

A few key takeaways

In this brave new world of digital clutter, people are always bombarded by choices. Browsing for hours on end has its perks, but at the end of the day, people just want to watch something they will enjoy so they can go on with their day.

What you want to do is to get viewers into video playback as soon as possible. If they know what they want to watch, they can browse for it. If they don’t, at least they have something to watch. 

As American psychologist Barry Schwartz writes in ‘The Paradox of Choice,’ more choice makes us unhappy and unsatisfied. Makes sense. After all, every moment of indecision is a moment where you’re not making viewers happy and ensuring they’re getting what they want.

The worst thing you can do for your UX is having somebody come to your app, only to leave without playing anything. 

Let us help you combat browser fatigue

If you want your subscribers to stick around, don’t just bombard them with choices. If you do, it’s only a matter of time before they drop you and switch to a competitor. It’s tough competition out there, and you need to give subscribers what they want if you want to come out on top. 
If you’d like to build or optimize your user interfaces to eliminate browser fatigue and keep your subscribers engaged, we can help. Get in touch with us now!

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