Broadcast networks continue to search for ways to draw viewers to watch the first-run airing of their shows. Over at NBC that means trying to entice viewers with the promise of two hours of ad-free viewing, when Aquarius returns with its season 2 premiere on Thursday, June 16.
The uninterrupted viewing idea comes and goes every once in a while; this time it seems to have started over on cable last fall, when Syfy, WGN America, and TBS all tested out commercial free series’ premieres. According to Adweek TBS pushed the idea one step further, airing the whole first season of Angie Tribeca as a 25 hour binge-a-thon with commercials only between episodes.
NatGeo followed suit in February with the premiere of the documentary He Named Me Malala, airing only a single Geico spot just prior to the film. NatGeo CEO Courteney Monroe says it’s an idea she’ll champion under the right circumstances, commenting, “If a project merits treating it differently or finding some alternative business model, we’ll do that.” For NatGeo’s model of cultural and socially conscious programming that makes sense; but does it work for the masses?
Networks are constantly battling for revenue while executives reevaluate current models vs. new ways to capture viewers. They’re pushing forward live viewing events like Fox’s The Passion, and Grease: Live as family alternatives. And NBC did see success with their 2013 live production of The Sound of Music, which drew more than 18 million viewers. When confronted with a scripted model, the ad-free format viewers love on Netflix (and long for on Hulu Plus) could be on avenue to new viewers.
Matt Cherniss, President of WGN America said, “We’re obviously an ad-supported network and our advertising partners are really important to us, but for me, nothing is more important than the shows launching successfully.”
One of WGN’s most promising series, Manhattan, was a critical smash but failed to find an audience and was canceled after a dismal season 2 average of just 400,000 viewers. Cherniss said it’s a trade-off between:
[T]he short-term experience of how much money you might generate off one episode of television versus the long-term of keeping an audience involved and getting them hooked on a show to the extent that they’re going to come back for weeks two, three, four and beyond.
Aquarius might seem like an odd choice for NBC to promote. The 1967 set Los Angeles detective show stars David Duchovny and Grey Damon as LAPD officers confronting the Manson family in the course of an investigation into a missing teen. It’s definitely dark but it also looks compelling.
The show’s creator, John McNamara, also worked on The Magicians, the series that Syfy tested with an ad-free premiere last year. So the idea has some overlap. And NBC has used Aquarius for audience testing before: last summer, following the Thursday night premiere episode NBC released all 13 episodes on Hulu and the NBC mobile app for four weeks. Episodes also continued to air in their regular timeslot on TV.
Viewers tuned in early but by the end of the season only 1.1 million people were still watching and the show had been shuttled to the Saturday night TV graveyard. Still, the network renewed the show by mid-season, perhaps simply to get more data this season on how well these ad-free promotions work.
Viewers do seemed to respond to the opportunity to catch first run shows without interruption. Angie Tribeca and The Magicians received early season 2 renewals after their premieres, and WGN’s Outsiders’ premiere was the highest rated original series in the network’s history.