After a lifespan of only two years, millennial-focused channel “Pivot” announced yesterday that they’ll be shutting down at the end of the year. It’s another failure driven by the fact that millennials just don’t watch as much linear TV as their parents. The channel’s owner cites a changing landscape and several other buzzwords instead of just admitting that people just weren’t watching the channel. Frankly I’d forgotten it was even on.
This is just the latest evidence that channel selections are slimming down. If you don’t have a full-time stable of original programs (like AMC, Bravo, HGTV, or the broadcast networks) there’s just not a lot of room for you in the future. I personally have forecasted that about half the channels that existed in 2010 could be gone by 2020.
While that sounds dire, think for a moment about all the sources of duplicate content out there. Premium channels have east and west coast feeds, a holdover from a more prudish time, plus each has at least five “affiliated” channels so each one can show the same movie six times a day. That’s not needed anymore and honestly if there were only one HBO, one Cinemax, one Starz, one Showtime, etc, you’d probably all be just fine with that. So you’re talking about eliminating about 85% of the premium channels with that one stroke.
The same is true with affiliated channels like The Science Channel, which repurposes a lot of Discovery content, or DIY, whose content dovetails with HGTV’s. With on-demand and streaming, there just isn’t a lot of need for these multiple channels and multiple showings of each program.
As much fun as it is to blame millennials for this trend, it isn’t 100% fair. People of all ages are watching less “live linear TV” and watching more on-demand, streaming, and DVR programming. Non-live program viewing, which was under 5% ten years ago, now accounts for more than half of all TV consumed. It just isn’t as important for people to find something on “right now…” it’s more important that they build viewing habits based on a large amount of available content, or at the very least one very buzzworthy program. If you don’t have either of those things, your time on the broadcast landscape is limited, and that’s not the fault of the under-35 crowd. That’s everyone’s doing.
Most of the articles I’ve read today are quick to blame Pivot’s demise on its target market, but I won’t do that. Why? Because other channels like H2 and Al Jazeera America failed as well. The problem isn’t just that kids raised on computers aren’t watching TV. I mean, that’s part of it but not all of it. The real source of the problem is lazy and greedy content providers who figured out that back in the ’90s and ’00s, if you put a channel out there, a major player like DIRECTV would probably pick it up. When pay-TV was in a growth mode, your channel selection really was enticing to people and so you saw these programming packages with tons of choices in them. The problem was that even with 500 channels, sometimes nothing was on. When the average cable bill tripled in the ’00s while salaries barely budged, you knew something would have to change.
The big buzzword today is “skinny.” Skinny, as in, you’ll get the 25 or 30 channels that most people agree are worth watching and if you want to add more, you’ll pay more. It’s funny but the new plans (like DISH’s skinny bundle plan) will actually cost you more if you want to add all the channels you get today, but it’s not likely you’d add all of them. People today are fine dumping 200 or 300 channels they don’t watch, as long as the good channels are still there.
And folks, that’s the message. Content providers like AMC, Disney, Discovery, HGTV… I’m talking to you. If you want people to watch TV, if you want to preserve the pay-TV landscape, you need to focus on high-quality programs that people want to watch. Recycling the same stuff over and over isn’t going to do it, and pandering to a fairly slim part of the market isn’t going to do it. It’s ok to have special-purpose programs, it’s ok to reach out to groups that don’t feel like they’re getting enough attention, but it has to be quality stuff that’s appealing and well-made.
The broadcast TV model of “you’ll watch what we give you because you have no choice” worked for about 50 years. The pay-TV model of “infinite diversity with varying quality” has worked for about 20 years, but it’s clearly reached the end of the line. So has the model where content providers double or triple their prices every three years. Think of Pivot as the canary in the coal mine… in fact it’s about the third dead canary this year and if you’re still not paying attention, folks… then it’s about to get much much worse.