Something huge is happening in online TV this year. No, it's not a new streaming set top box or Web-exclusive video series. It's not even an app. It's a milestone: 2013 is the year that Internet-first TV became truly normal.
People have been watching TV programs online at places like Hulu and Netflix for years. But until recently, most that viewing has involved programs that had previously aired on broadcast or cable TV. There have long been geek-centric webisodes of TV-esque programming online, but nothing that everyday people would watch. This year, things are changing.
"An Inflection Point For Online Television"
For evidence of the mainstreaming of Web-first TV, look no further than the online revival of All My Children and One Life to Live. The classic TV soap operas are returning not to a broadcast network, but to Hulu and iTunes. It may sound like a distribution strategy fit for a tech video podcast or no-name Web TV series, but these are soap operas. TV doesn't get more mainstream than this.
Citing an "inflection point for online television", the shows' backers are betting big on the notion that enough people watch TV online these days to make this a profitable endeavor. If recent history is any indication, it's a safe bet.
The first sign of Internet TV's legitimacy among mainstream audiences came earlier this year with House of Cards. We still don't know precisely how many people tuned into Netflix's TV-quality political drama, but it's clearly been popular among the service's 29 million subscribers, as well as many critics.
Most importantly, the show got people talking. Not just tech-savvy people living their lives online, but normal, everyday people. Suddenly, you could hear House of Cards being chattered about at parties as though it was the latest drama on HBO, whose U.S. subscriber count Netflix just surpassed. (Sort of, at least.)
At 4 million subscribers, Hulu is markedly smaller than Netflix, but it's growing fast. And unlike Netflix, Hulu lets non-subscribers stream shows for free from the desktop, so the potential reach of shows like the new All My Children isn't capped at 4 million, or even 29 million, for that matter. Then there's iTunes, through which viewers will be able to purchase individual episodes.
The Imperfect Science of Measuring Web TV
Even on these popular online services, these soap operas will almost certainly fall short of the kind of ratings numbers they used to see on daytime TV. It's impossible to know for sure, since each of these services has different viewership metrics and they're not particularly eager to share. Even Netflix, which proudly boasts the success of House of Cards, won't say just how many people actually watched the show.
The measurement challenge might begin to change soon, as Nielsen moves toward measurement tools that Internet sources into account. Next month, a temporary pilot run of its Nielsen Digital Program Ratings will track online views from the networks' own websites. In time, the tracking method could become a standard utilized by an array of online video services, finally painting an accurate picture of what's getting watched.
Nielsen has a long way to go with Internet TV measurement, but the fact that it's tinkering with a decades-old formula is a sign that online TV viewership is now too enormous for it to ignore if it wants to stay relevant.
Before the year is halfway over, we'll have another test of Internet TV's mainstream appeal when Arrested Development's fourth season lands on Netflix. Like the soap operas, Arrested Development is making the leap from TV to online, but in this case the show is backed by eight years of anticipation and the same data-driven smarts that all but ensured House of Cards would be a hit.
Again, we won't know how many people will actually tune in to the new season of Arrested Development unless Netflix decides to share that data. In the meantime, we'll have only limited, largely anecdotal clues to go from. Perhaps the most important: Are people talking about this? I don't mean on Twitter, but at the bar. That's how we'll really know that a new era in television's history is underway.