Will NBC’s ‘Aquarius’ Be Just the First Binge Bow in Primetime?

Forgive the cynics among us if they sense an ulterior motive behind NBC’s unprecedented move to make available all the episodes of the new drama series “Aquarius” via various VOD platforms immediately after its premiere tonight. What may seem an audacious release strategy could also be interpreted as just a creative spin on the kind of unceremonious dumping of series in which networks don’t have much faith, a common practice in the summer months.

But NBC’s intentions are really besides the point. “Aquarius” has the potential to be the tipping point for a trend that seemed inevitable as soon as Netflix first made a splash by letting its subscribers binge on the first season of “House of Cards.” It doesn’t matter whether “Aquarius” is the first series to be successfully launched with a binge alternative to linear TV in place; what will be more interesting is if and when more of such binge bows will follow.

In the short term, this strategy may not seem to make a lot of sense. The broadcast business is still reliant on maximizing eyeballs in that first primetime window advertisers pay so much to reach because it almost always draws the biggest audience.

In all likelihood, scheduling a two-hour premiere episode right before distributing the subsequent 11 episodes on NBC.com and other places is going to prompt the segment of the audience that loves the series most to peel off for the binge opportunity and not return to the linear window for the traditional weekly rollout of future episodes.

Maybe “Hannibal” would have been a better show to try this strategy with because of the cannibalization NBC is probably going to induce to “Aquarius'” linear viewership.

Keep in mind, however, that cannibalization isn’t guaranteed. Just how many people will feel strongly enough to get a jump on watching episodes they would otherwise have to wait at least another week to watch won’t necessarily remove a significant portion of the fan base. And regardless of the size of that audience segment, perhaps their bingeing creates great word of mouth on social media and otherwise, which in turn helps drive additional audience to sample “Aquarius” on air.

Maybe.

NBC has hedged its bet here by making deals with a limited number of advertisers, enabling identical ad loads in linear and VOD. What that means isn’t entirely clear, however. Mirroring the ad loads could mean that advertisers can get paid for a measurable amount of eyeballs regardless of where they watch, which means the linear ratings loss that VOD could divert may be OK.

But the devil will be in the details of the deal NBC has struck with those advertisers for the “Aquarius” arrangement (the network declined to comment on the particulars). The CPMs that NBC is charging them to reach advertisers on both platforms may not be equal, which will pinch the network if linear loses too much to VOD.

And what, if anything, can be charged to reach the viewers who will watch outside of the live-plus-three or -seven viewing periods is unknown, but this arrangement probably increases the likelihood of that delayed viewing.

Then there is NBC’s affiliates to consider. In the absence of any public squawking from station execs that they are getting shafted here, you have to assume they’ve been placated with some cut of the on-demand ad revenue, but that’s unknown as well.

“Aquarius” will be a test case for just how compelling the binge opportunity is. There’s a lot of hype around this viewing phenomenon in the age of Netflix, perhaps too much so. As much attention as the people who watch multiple episodes in a single sitting get, they may not necessarily be that significant a portion of a given show’s total audience.

Which isn’t to say that “Aquarius” will singlehandedly establish just how popular the binge will become outside of streaming services. There’s going to have to be much more experimentation with different types of shows, networks and windows of availability to really suss this out.

But the prospect of such a phase raises another prospect, something unthinkable just a few short years ago: Could the time come when primetime TV resembles Netflix, and the binge bow becomes standard?

Don’t dismiss the possibility out of hand because of how difficult it is to conceive of a change that could ultimately render obsolete the whole notion of a primetime schedule. If so many all-you-can-eat episodic opportunities awaited viewers, would that not terminally undercut the practice of moving viewers from one show to the next via time slots strategically juxtaposed to summon that near mystical force known as audience “flow?”

It’s hard to see how that dynamic could be fully eradicated by a binge-bow boom. As long as there is demand for a program, there will be a crush of viewers who want to see it as soon as it premieres and take part of the shared experience that is watching together, creating conversational fodder on social media or the office watercooler. (However, it’s worth noting that execs including HBO chief Richard Plepler have questioned whether binge viewing actually curtails social buzz by condensing the viewing period of the most ardent fans.)

The binge option would also flourish if it proved not to steal away linear audience. It may not even matter much if the opposite held true; improvements to dynamic ad insertion could ultimately make the difference between linear or binge viewing meaningless. Or maybe the TV biz will protect itself in an entirely different way: could the day come when viewers pay extra for the right to binge, helping offset any ad losses?

Even if binge bows cannibalized linear ratings, network TV seems to have resigned itself already to cannibalizing itself in myriad other ways: in-season stacking on VOD, out-of-season licensing on SVOD, and of course time-shifting via the almighty DVR. One more log on the fire may not seem like such an escalation of cannibalization. But that could be a dangerous underestimation.

If by some small chance “Aquarius” manages to build the linear audience that shows up for the premiere in the second week, you can bet we will see many more networks try what NBC is doing. More likely: “Aquarius” experiences the more typical audience attrition that even successful new series experience.

Then NBC needs to try to figure out how much of that decrease was really just viewers migrating to on demand, which it will do, according to a source familiar with the network’s plans, with the help of customized Nielsen research. Regardless of what happens, the multiplatform viewing patterns that emerge from this experiment are going to be fascinating.

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