The way we watch TV is changing far more quickly than the way that TV is made. I get asked all the time how much networks take into account streaming viewership, On Demand viewing, iTunes download, delayed DVR viewing, etc., when they have to make decisions on what shows to renew or cancel. For the most part, though, judgments are still made on the old metrics – because those are the primary ways the networks still make money – but every now and then you'll see an exception. Once upon a time, NBC stuck with the modestly-rated “The Office” because the network was intrigued by how well the show was doing in the new world of iTunes downloads, and a few years later, “Chuck” survived in large part through product integration deals.
Now we have a really interesting case study for the tail wagging the dog with USA's much-delayed renewal of “Playing House.” The comedy, created by and starring Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, aired its last new episode in June, and as months went by with no news on its fate – along with reports that USA, burned by the poor ratings for syndicated “Modern Family” repeats, was abandoning most of its comedy development – it seemed a goner.
Today, though, USA announced a new season for the show, but with a twist: each season 2 episode will be available On Demand a week before it airs on USA.
USA isn't the first network to play around with VOD windows – HBO, for instance, made each final season episode of “The Wire” available On Demand shortly after the previous episode aired, while Showtime makes episodes from the debut seasons of many of its new series available early in the same way – but this is the first time I can think of a network specifically keeping a marginal show around for this reason. This is an experiment that lets USA see how an early VOD release affects live ratings, and it also helps the network encourage more people to use their On Demand service. Virtually every network executive would rather their viewers watch On Demand than via DVR, since it's easier to monitor viewing that way, and since it's easier to force people to watch ads that way. (I haven't watched any USA shows On Demand in a while, but I know a lot of networks specifically disable fast-forwarding with their On Demand service for that reason.)
I still have to catch up on the back half of “Playing House” season 1, but I like the Parham/St. Clair duo a lot, and I'm interested to see what happens with this experiment. As ratings for individual series grow more and more marginal, networks are going to have to think outside the box to figure out which are worth saving and which should just be tossed. If the new “Playing House” arrangement is a success for USA, we could see other networks try similar experiments with their own fringe series.
What does everybody else think?
UPDATE: You may enjoy this video of Parham telling St. Clair the renewal news: