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TV Networks' Unusual Binge-Viewing Trials Have a Surprisingly Traditional Aim

MTV and Disney Hope App Viewing Leads Back to TV

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AMC's "Breaking Bad" didn't truly become a runaway hit until its final season, after latecomers who caught up via Netflix expanded the crowd of live viewers. But why should a network wait until a show is nearing its end to find an audience?

'Sheriff Callie's Wild West,' coming soon to an app, and then to TV
'Sheriff Callie's Wild West,' coming soon to an app, and then to TV Credit: Disney

MTV and the Disney Channel are now looking to develop audiences earlier, by making upcoming shows available to "binge view" before they even hit TV. While the move resembles the Netflix tactic of offering full seasons of shows like "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development" all at once instead of parceling new episodes out over time, it's also a bit of twist.

Netflix lets its subscribers binge in the hopes of building, and feeding, their streaming habit on the Netflix platform. MTV and Disney are letting viewers binge digitally in order to ultimately build the shows' TV audiences, introducing viewers to the characters and story in their apps for the benefit of their traditional media.

"The app is a way to build affinity to a new show," said Nancy Kanter, exec VP and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, which is making the first nine episodes of "Sheriff Callie's Wild West" available through the Watch Disney Junior app on Nov. 24. The show doesn't begin on TV until early next year.

"This allows preschoolers to dive into a show and get to know a show and characters in a way that it would have taken longer to on the linear channel," Ms. Kanter said.

MTV similarly posted the full 12-episode season of its new high-school football reality series, "Wait 'Til Next Year," on its MTV app last week, ahead of its TV premiere Nov. 1. For this experiment, Kristin Frank, exec VP-connected content at MTV, said executives chose a show that was unknown to viewers to see just what kind of traction an unfamiliar entity could achieve.

For both networks, the goal is to lead viewers back to the TV set. (Not enough MTV viewers use the app yet to accidentally cause the opposite effect and cannibalize TV ratings, Mr. Frank said.)

While some view Netflix as a threat to the traditional TV model, others see the service as additive to live TV viewing. AMC, in particular, has watched shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" grow in the ratings season-over-season partly as Netflix subscribers watched past seasons and then started watching new episodes as they aired on TV.

Binge viewing is natural for young children, Ms. Kanter said. "They like to watch multiple episodes in a row and even the same episode over and over," she said.

Since children's programming has heavy repeat viewing, releasing the show in the app isn't expected to deter the audience from watching it again when it is on, and Ms. Kanter said will even make the show more relevant since they are familiar with the Sheriff Callie's world before they turn on TV.

Ms. Frank hopes the early release of "Wait 'Til Next Year" will serve as a marketing tool, prompting those who watch in the app to discuss the show and build chatter before it bows on TV.

That would reverse the current flow of conversation, where social buzz is generated by those watching a show live, which prompts others to pick up the series through on demand platforms.

If MTV is successful, and the app drives a bigger TV rating, it would also represent a win for TV advertisers shut out of the ad-free Netflix ecosystem. Ad inventory in the MTV app is sold out, Ms. Frank said. Advertising lives as pre-roll within "Wait 'Til Next Year," with CoverGirl a sponsor of the show on both the mobile and TV screens.

"Advertisers associated with the app are probably not so concerned about CPMs [the cost per thousand viewers] if they are trying to build their brands around the program," Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser said via email. He notes those advertisers likely consider the app inventory to be "value-add."

The Disney Junior app does not include ads.

The apps can also serve as instant data collectors, allowing MTV and Disney to receive feedback on the shows that they will use to influence the creative process. Ms. Kanter said Disney will look at how often viewers watch "Sheriff Callie," for example, when they are watching, and which episodes they are watching more often.

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