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In Search of TV Episodes: How Not to Reward Fan Loyalty

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Once upon a time, broadcast and cable networks scheduled their programs in a fairly predictable manner. You could count on the new season of shows in the fall, with special episodes during the sweeps (November, February, May, and July). The summer used to be filled with either reruns and/or reality fare.

These days the broadcast and cable television programming lineup changes nearly every week. New shows launch throughout the year, while others are placed on hiatus in order to conserve episodes for a later season run. The viewer has to stay on their toes in order not to miss an episode of their favorite show.

One would think that with all the options available beyond "live" viewing, staying on top of a season's worth of television should be easy. This is far from the case. Hunting down episodes is akin to a scavenger hunt gone awry.

Along with an estimated weekly base of 5 to 6 million viewers last season, I am a loyal fan of the ABC-TV primetime drama Nashville, which returned from its winter hiatus last Wednesday. I modestly time-shifted my viewing to enjoy it without interruption, skipping through all the advertising.

However, unless I remain vigilant and set my DVR, reloading earlier Nashville episodes is hard to do.

A robust video streaming ecosystem includes online streams of the networks; video-on-demand libraries of cable and satellite operators; streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon; and micro-transactions through iTunes. So refreshing my memory for the mid-season return by catching up on back episodes of Nashville (as well as a handful of other shows, from Community to Sherlock, returning to the small screen this month) would appear to be simple.

But the library of Nashville episodes is divided among several competing services. Even the network does not offer the full catalogue of content to its viewers. Rather, the viewer is sent on a scavenger hunt for back episodes.

Networks are missing opportunities to cultivate loyalty to their product and to serve their best customers by making it too difficult to find the content they like. In other industries, distribution is a matter of convenience and not a roadblock for the consumer.

Can you imagine forcing users of Tide laundry detergent to shop at different retailers every week in order to remain loyal to the brand? Tide is on the shelves of every major retailer, and it is up to the retailer to court the customer based upon the shopper experience.

Imagine if a novel was parceled out chapter by chapter to only specific retailers at specific times. The reader would grow frustrated, forced to hunt down bits and pieces of a narrative across different retail access points.

This seems absurd in nearly every marketplace, but this is happening in the television business. Full access to content should be made available to audiences. Like other industries, let the intermediaries court the audience's business based upon experience as opposed to roadblocks. Unless a viewer subscribes to multiple streaming services, it is very difficult for fans to enjoy full season runs of their favorite shows.

You would assume that abc.go.com would be the most logical place to find back episodes of a show on its network. I downloaded the ABC network viewer app only to learn that I can't get to ABC programming unless I first authenticate my TV service provider.

What ABC tried to make available to any fan of its programming was quickly barricaded by the intermediaries. The network had a choice: serve the fan and upset the intermediaries who pay the networks considerable sums of money in carriage fees, or limit access.

Once I got through the firewall (I am a Comcast Xfinity subscriber), I was treated to a promo spot from ABC touting the service with the disclaimer in fine print, "Show and episode availability subject to change." The freshman season of Nashville was missing, and only a handful of episodes from the current season are available: episodes 201, 202, 203, 209 and 210. The fan is left with a huge hole of content that is sitting in some other intermediary's library.

Next, I searched the video-on-demand library of my TV service provider. I quickly discovered that the landscape gets even more confusing. Comcast Xfinity offers its subscribers some episodes online-only and others both online and on television. When I patched together the offerings from Comcast, I could only account for episodes 201 and 202 (online only) and 203, 209, 210 (television and online).

After two stops in this scavenger hunt, I am still missing the entire freshman season of Nashville, along with the middle episodes of the current season.

Perhaps I would find the Holy Grail on Netflix. As a Netflix subscriber, I have been filled with angst over the much-publicized Jan. 1 expiration date, when numerous contracts between content providers and Netflix expire. But Nashville was not there.

Even though I pay for two streaming services -- Comcast Xfinity and Netflix -- I still cannot piece together a full season of my favorite TV show.

So I try Hulu and Hulu Plus. I was able to find five episodes of the current season on the "free" part of Hulu eight days after they air on ABC. Why eight days late? Because some advertisers will pay the network for audience viewing in what is known as "C7": live plus seven days post air (while others will only pay for "C3"). After day 7, the network audience rarely counts toward ad revenue, so off the episode goes to streaming land.

If I am willing to fork out another $7.99 a month and subscribe to Hulu Plus, the episode count doubles to 10 episodes. But Nashville fans on Hulu are not happy. Here are a few comments I found on the Nashville landing page:

"Why can't I find Season One?"

"I'm still waiting for Episode 7."

"I need Episode 9, I'm having withdrawals, they take forever to put new episodes up here."

After four stops, Season One is still missing. And only bits and pieces of the current season can be found in any one place.

I am making one last attempt: iTunes. I finally found what I was missing, and for the price of $2.99 per episode, I can view Nashville all the way back to the pilot. Despite subscribing to multiple streaming services, my only option to access the full library is to pay à la carte for the privilege.

No wonder Congress is taking on this issue. In the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013 introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year, the issue of who has control over what television content consumers can both access and pay for is coming to light.

Currently, the intermediary calls the shots, and consumers are left to pay for bundles of content that in some instances include programs that they do not want, and in other instances (as witnessed with Nashville), the bundles are incomplete. True fans of content are still left to exercise micro-transactions in order to access the full library that is currently splintered across multiple competing service providers.

Who is the customer here? One would think that a fan of any TV show should be the most valued asset in the media economy. But from the experience of simply trying to piece together one television show, it appears that the intermediaries are in the drivers' seat.

As networks dole out bundles of episodes for exclusive windows to competing service providers, the audience is left with only a patchwork of its favorite content. In a highly fractured media ecosystem, it's hard enough for audiences to find great programming and become dedicated viewers.

If the networks continue to make distribution deals that put great content behind firewalls, they are limiting the potential to drive audience loyalty and corresponding economic value from their core product: the television shows they put on their air.

Networks should make access to their product both universally accessible and convenient to the end consumer. Let the TV service providers compete for the audience's business based upon value and service as opposed to restricted access.

Judy Franks is a lecturer at The Medill School, Northwestern University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in media studies and consumer insight. She is the author of Media: From Chaos to Clarity.