Why linear programming will bring more viewers to Netflix’s content

What happens when an a la carte service delivers a set menu? Netflix's foray into linear programming has Paykel Media managing director Sarah Keith intrigued.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the free to air TV industry should be feeling very flattered by a recent move by the streaming giant Netflix.

In November, Netflix France announced the launch of Netflix Direct, a subscriber-only linear channel that will show French, international and US feature films and TV series. It represents Netflix’s first foray into real-time, scheduled programming. It also prompts an obvious question: why has a company whose entire brand is built around reinventing television adopted a viewing experience that dates back to the 1950s?

Netflix is the antithesis of linear viewing. Its business model is built on giving people the ability to choose when and how they want to watch its content. It doesn’t “schedule” content in the way linear broadcasters do; it puts content on its platform and lets the viewer decide.

So why is the king of streaming stealing a strategy from an old, tradition-bound rival?

First, people are suffering from decision fatigue. Life is complicated and, at times, hard, particularly given the year we’ve all had. The easier you can make it for someone to consume your product, the more they might like it and keep buying it.

Second, discoverability is one of the keys to success in the TV world and shows are built through repetition.

Third, there is value in the upper funnel (more on that later).

One of Netflix’s key challenges is finding ways of getting audiences invested in shows and movies they don’t even know exist. One way to do that is greater curation of its content; in the case of Netflix Direct, that means linear scheduling and the repetition of content in a structured way.

“Maybe you’re not in the mood to decide, or you’re new and finding your way around, or you just want to be surprised by something new and different,” Netflix said in a statement announcing the new linear service.

What Netflix is actually saying is that it needs to work out how it can increase sampling of its product. In theory, Netflix Direct gives it a way to get people interested in shows which aren’t getting noticed as much as its trending content such as The Crown or The Queen’s Gambit.

That doesn’t mean Netflix is going to turn into a linear programmer. The rigidity of linear programming is one of the reasons people have drifted from free to air TV to streaming services (including the free to air networks’ BVOD platforms). But some people remain fans of linear channels. Netflix knows that and figures that testing a linear service is a good idea.

The free to air TV networks have long known that the more they show a program, the more it grows. That seems blindingly obvious, but the trick lies in how, where and when the program is repeated.

Here is how Gareth Tomlin, Network 10’s general manager, data, insights and analytics, explains it: “TV networks build new program formats through the use of next day or weekend encore broadcasts, situated in timeslots where we can maximise the number of new viewers who’ve not yet watched. It’s why we promote viewing of library content on 10 Play before the launch of a new season. In the pay TV space, Fetch TV has introduced virtual playlist channels, comprised of linear schedules from BVOD sites.

“Sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory grew their audience through consistent scheduling and repeats of prior seasons, and became some of the biggest programs on TV. These days, very few shows are able to launch big out of the blocks like The Masked Singer did last year.”

Another way to think about it is in the context of the marketing funnel. Global media agency giant GroupM has invested heavily in programmatic and data-driven marketing technology, but it still believes in the importance of top funnel marketing.

This plays right into one of Netflix’s key challenges. How can it get audiences invested in shows that aren’t trending? Netflix Direct is the broad targeting test that will determine if free to air TV networks have been right all along and will allow Netflix to engage a more traditional-style of viewer who doesn’t want to spend precious time figuring out what to watch, but instead will trust in the platform to tell them what to do. (Sadly for the free to air networks, decision fatigue isn’t going to boost their audience numbers in any significant way.)

Ultimately, if people are presented with too much choice and cannot figure out what they want, their decisions need to be made for them. As Steve Jobs said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Sarah Keith is the managing director of Paykel Media.


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