Online video streaming is the wave of the future. Everyone says so anyway, but most big media companies are taking a "wait and see" approach, mostly out of fear of upsetting already reliable revenue streams. Some Supernatural fans believe the time is now, because the show's sinking network isn't doing much to build viewership and it’s time to try new things.
Support Supernatural this week kicked off a petition drive designed to bring in new viewers for this often under-the-radar show. How is this different from the numerous other fan campaigns that have happened in the last year? Instead of targeting The CW, the petition is asking Warner Brothers Television Group to make season one of Supernatural available for online streaming.
The idea is simple. Supernatural is a cult show with a heavy mytharc that cannot be picked up easily by a casual viewer in its third season. It must be watched from the beginning. Fans have been trying to get friends to watch, but are getting increasingly frustrated by not having easy access to prior episodes. Since many people connect online, loaning out DVD sets isn’t practical when a friend is miles away and these potential viewers certainly aren’t going to buy the DVDs for a show they haven’t seen. Season one also doesn’t air anywhere in form of repeats, nor does season two.
By introducing Supernatural from the beginning via free online streaming, the hope is it will attract new viewers and also get the attention of those who have lost track of the show. Best case scenario — viewers will get interested enough to catch up on season two and three either through Netflix, buying the DVDs or downloading on iTunes, and then there will be a new audience to tune in when new episodes air for season four. Take that logic, along with the announcement from Warner Brothers recently that they are going to beta with The WB.com and would be live by August, and a campaign is born.
Time For Creative Ideas
Times are very rough for networks right now. Ever since scripted shows returned from the strike-induced hiatus, ratings are way down. Many programs are hitting not only season but series lows. While this is bad news for an ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX, it’s devastating for The CW. This is a network already having major cash flow problems, and many aren’t sure how much longer they can survive.
An interesting issue was raised in an analysis over the ratings declines. Are people still watching these shows, but they’re not watching live? Supernatural is a decent case study on how declining ratings on a struggling network don't necessarily mean that fewer people are watching the show. Look at the history of their Nielsen ratings in the first three seasons. Back in season one, with heavy promotion and buzz, Supernatural started off on The WB with 5.6 million viewers. The top-rated episode of the season was 5.8 million viewers, but somewhere in the middle of season one the show was moved to the impossible timeslot of Thursdays at 9pm from Tuesdays, and ratings at the end of that season sank to 4 million.
The WB folded, and thus started the new era on The CW. The first season of The CW was rough, for many viewers didn’t know it existed and it didn’t have full coverage in all markets. They also didn’t have much money for promotion of their shows or their network in general. As a result, the shows brought over from The WB and UPN saw big ratings declines. Supernatural in season two started off at under 4 million, and ended the season at 2.7 million. The third season ratings started around 3 million, and recently, after coming back from the strike induced hiatus, hit a series low with “Ghostfacers” at only 2.2 million viewers. That would be troubling, except all CW shows are showing declines of twenty percent or more.
While it seems like a typical ratings decline, it wasn’t until this season that DVR numbers were tracked. Many CW shows saw increases of twenty percent or more when DVR numbers were factored. On top of that, many of their episodes were big sellers on iTunes and shows like Smallville and Supernatural did well with DVD sales. The conclusion was a lot of Supernatural fans didn’t go away, they just weren’t watching live anymore, because of the heavy competition from other networks (including cable) and changing viewing habits.
The problem is ratings are still important. They still result in ad revenue for the networks, and in The CW’s case, DVR numbers aren’t helping their dire cash flow situation. According to an article this week in AdAge, The CW is trying to come up with ways to get viewers to watch new episodes live. Chances are if they don’t, there won’t be a CW much longer.
Let’s face it, The CW needs all the help it can get. It’s a small fringe network that’s losing viewers and cash quickly, and cannot begin to compete with the bigger networks by traditional means. It can only survive with creative and affordable marketing strategies, like catering to fans online and encouraging them to watch live. The fans help with promotion, generate the buzz, and the Internet is the cheapest and most effective resource. Considering Warner Brothers is fifty percent owner of The CW, and part of the Time Warner family (which has a huge online presence), they already have the resources in place to make such campaigns a reality.
Networks Still Aren’t Convinced
The same AdAge article mentioned that networks haven’t figured out ways to monetize their online content. Warner Brothers already knows that there’s revenue to be made from ad-supported streaming, thus the resurrection of The WB online. After all, many popular online sites like MSN.com reported double digit increases in traffic during the winter months. Hulu.com, an ad-supported online streaming site created by FOX and NBC, launched in March and has been a steady hit. Warner Brothers even contributed some content to that site. However, Warner Brothers still isn’t convinced of the full potential of online streaming considering the shows announced to be aired are older WB hits; Friends, The OC, and The Gilmore Girls. There’s also a fear that making shows available online will ruin deals for cable syndication.
Cable networks saw big increases in ratings in 2008. Even though many of these cable stations were airing repeats, these episodes were new to many of the viewers who were seeking new entertainment options while the networks aired filler reality shows because of the strike. As a result, some shows like Family Guy are seeing new life in syndication.
The trouble is shows that haven’t been around for four or more seasons, like Supernatural, aren’t available for cable syndication yet. If Supernatural season one was available online, especially this summer, that would expose it to many curiosity seekers and might help with the cable syndication prospects when there are enough episodes. Also, catering to an online audience would attract more 18-34 year olds, which is both the WB.com and The CW's target demographic. It could also help promote the future sales of season one DVD sets once it’s available on Blu-ray, not to mention increased sales from season two and three sets since those won’t be available online.
Will this idea work? Who knows, but it’s worth a try. This could be a great way for smaller shows on small networks to find audiences that they can't get during regular TV viewing hours. Warner Brothers should take this chance, for there’s not much to lose and everything to gain.
Viewers who think this seems like a worthwhile cause can go to Support Supernatural and click on the link for “Support Streaming Supernatural Season 1”. Thanks so much to Lindsay and Heather for taking this crazy idea and running with it. Let’s hope Warner Brothers is willing to explore the possibilities the online world can create for them.