2015 was a huge year for change in the media landscape. The growth of new media programming continued with the launch of services like HBO Now and Netflix outputting tens of new series, but looking forward to this year, there are a handful of questions which stick out as defining for the state of media industries in 2016. Without further ado, here they are:
1. Who will get the Big Ten’s TV Rights?
The Big Ten Conference’s deal with ESPN and CBS for the first-tier rights to its football and basketball games will expire at the end of the 2016-2017 season. Because of this, during the spring, the conference will seek bids from networks for a new long-term contract. It will likely be looking for a major increase on the current 6-year, $72 million agreement for both sports, and with CBS for basketball.
There will likely be four parties entering the bidding process — two of them pursuing it seriously. NBC Sports and CBS have said they’re considering bidding, but Sports Business Daily suggests they’re both happy with their current offerings. NBC has the rights to Notre Dame home games and CBS airs the first-tier SEC package, as well as major college basketball games and the NCAA tournament. FOX Sports is expected to be a major challenger. FOX currently shares the rights with ESPN to the top games from the PAC-12 and Big 12 conferences, and will be looking to expand upon those, while ESPN is going to try to hold onto one of the cornerstones of their college football Saturdays.
What could hold back ESPN from winning the bid is their current cost-cutting measures. They currently have billions of dollars committed to the NFL, MLB and NBA, among others. They’ve been cutting costs, so they might not have the money to retain the rights on their own. We’ll find out in the spring if they have enough to hold off FOX.
2. Will we ever see Netflix ratings?
Over the past few years, Netflix has gone from a DVD-by-mail service to one of the most powerful forces in television. FX’s CEO John Landgraf recently stated they have 50 original shows currently on their service, as well as 45 children’s shows. Overall their spending on original programming will reach $1 billion in 2016.
However, the only people who have any idea how many people are watching the shows are the people who work in Netflix. The streaming service has released no ratings for their originals, citing the need to report to no one but themselves. (Other services like Amazon Prime and Hulu have followed suit.)
This decision has a major implication for the industry at large. First of all, it impacts talent negotiations with Netflix, as ratings are a big factor in deciding salaries for future seasons of a series. (For example, the stars of the “Big Bang Theory” were able to negotiate $1 million per episode deals because of the show’s success.) It takes away the talent’s leverage, because they have no idea how valuable their show is to Netflix.
Still, something tells me we’ll have a better indication of what the numbers actually are by the end of the year. This week at Television Critics Association, NBC released the results of a study it commissioned which estimated the 18-49 aged viewers for a few of Netflix’s originals over a period of four months. NBC won’t be the only ones to gain traction for estimates of the service’s numbers. While Netflix content head Ted Sarandos dismissed the numbers as inaccurate and not relevant because 18-49 is an advertiser friendly demo (and Netflix has no advertisers), there will be a point where they’re not just going to be able to say ratings are “inaccurate” without providing proof. We’ll probably never get a comparable demographic detail provided by Nielsen, but my guess is they’ll be forced to show concrete numbers sometime in the near future.
3. Can freshmen critical hits grow in the ratings?
Last summer, two series debuted which sparked significant critical acclaim, but didn’t light the world on fire with their ratings. Both “Mr. Robot” on USA and “unREAL” on Lifetime are well thought-of, but didn’t score the ratings. “Mr. Robot” averaged 1.4 million viewers — a 0.5 rating in the 18-49 demographic — while “unREAL” scored an average of .696 million viewers and a lowly .3 in the demo.
To put those in perspective, “Mr. Robot” lost about half the total viewership and about 30 percent in the demo from its lead-in “Suits” and “Unreal” dropped in total viewers and the key demo by about 50 percent of the rating that its lead-in “Devious Maids” got. However, both shows grew substantially when DVR and Video On Demand viewing was factored in, both more than doubling their Live + Same Day rating.
Despite both of them being among the top new shows of 2015, they didn’t bring in viewers. They’re both a bit more experimental than what has been done in the summer previously. Their quality was enough to get a season two (in “Mr. Robot” ’s case, it happened before a single episode aired), and “Mr. Robot” especially has done well on the awards circuit and will likely be in contention for an Emmy when nominations are announced in July.
For me, one of the big questions of 2016 is can these shows utilize the buzz and awards attention to bring in more viewers? “Mr. Robot” has a deal in place with Amazon Prime which Variety says is one of the service’s “priciest acquisitions for a single series.” “unREAL” has no outside Subscription Video On Demand deal announced, but &E Studios still have all the episode available on Lifetime’s website. Neither one of these sources has the track record of Netflix in bringing new viewers to currently airing shows. (“Scandal” and “Breaking Bad” are the most cited case-studies). The key for USA and Lifetime is to leverage this availability and bring people in. We’ll know this summer if it can be done.
4. How will FOX replace “American Idol”?
In May, one of the longest-running and most important shows on broadcast TV, “American Idol,” signs off for the last time. Many pieces have already dissected the importance of the show at its peak (as the “Death Star” of television), so my big question is about the future after it goes away. Fox has relied on the show to fill at least one night on its schedule, so it’s going to leave a giant hole.
The network had a lot of trouble launching new shows this fall, with only “Rosewood” surviving into the spring and drops pretty much across the board for their returning series. So, they have at least one night of their midseason schedule to fill which they haven’t before, and they’ve struggled with launching shows. This does not sound like a good combination. My prediction: FOX will bring back every show they can to fill the space. They won’t go heavy with the new launches next midseason, instead the next few seasons of the sure-thing lower-rated shows like “New Girl” and “Scream Queens,” to replace them with new (and ideally higher-rated) series.
5. Who will pick up The CW’s streaming rights?
One of the biggest deals in streaming is about to reach its end. In 2011, The CW signed a four-year (and almost $1 billion) deal with Netflix for the SVOD rights to its series. This deal is often cited as a landmark moment for the decade-old network, as it made the network’s programming much more valuable to its corporate owners. It expired at the end of last year and the network (and its corporate owners, CBS and Warner Bros.) is trying to find a new partner for a new deal.
There have been several stories about the negotiations, and it’s looking less and less likely that the network will re-sign with Netflix. According to the Wall Street Journal, this is because Netflix is seeking the global rights to the net’s programming, and the owners are not happy with giving the service that much power. So, the net is looking at all its other options, including signing with Amazon Prime or Hulu, giving the CW’s series to the CBS-owned CBS All Access or creating their own portal for them.
Whatever deal is made for the CW’s programming, it will be at a much higher price than the last one. The net has grown a lot in the last four years, with the introduction of DC Comics hits like “Arrow” or “The Flash” and the increased awards attention given to a series like “Jane the Virgin.” My prediction: the network will sell its programming to CBS All Access. CBS needs to bolster that service and make it more valuable to consumers, and bringing in the CW’s buzzworthy programming would be a step in that direction.