TV Networks Hope Their Next Hit Show Will Be an App

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MTV's "Bleechers."

Young people are the biggest consumers of content on smartphones and tablets by far. And traditional television networks have, at times, found it difficult to reach the YouTube generation—and turn them into customers. So now they’re turning to apps. TV networks are increasingly releasing new series in the form of tablet and smartphone software that is available before programs air on old-fashioned television.

Last month MTV premiered a full season of a new docudrama, “Wait ‘Til Next Year,” via app before its Nov. 1 television debut, while the Disney/ABC Group announced plans to air nine episodes of a new children’s show, “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West,” on the Watch Disney Junior app ahead of its 2014 premiere.

In recent years TV networks have explored using mobile content for sneak previews or extended cuts, but an overwhelming shift to the concept of TV Everywhere, or accessing shows on multi-platforms like tablets and smartphones, has revealed that second screens are rapidly becoming the first viewing option for young people. In fact, Nieslen announced last week it would count mobile devices in traditional TV ratings beginning next fall, providing more accurate data and underscoring a greater recognition of mobile users.

Colin Helms, senior vice president of connected content at MTV, tells TIME the experiment with releasing the full series of “Wait ‘Til Next Year” is to figure out how viewers sample content, hoping the nature of the viewing option will create social buzz for the traditional premiere and also build a new online audience. By releasing multiple episodes of a new show—a concept Netflix had success with—viewers can connect to characters quicker and more deeply by allowing the option to “binge-watch” episodes.

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More networks are experimenting with branded apps, which are free but require a login from a cable provider, essentially exploiting new media through a traditional subscription. The aim, according to Erik Brannon, a senior analyst in U.S. television at IHS, is to win over young people who are spending more time on mobile devices and who are otherwise unlikely to subscribe to a traditional model in the future.

Indeed, the launch success of the Watch Disney Junior app led to the decision to debut “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West” there first, said Nancy Kanter, a Disney Junior Worldwide executive. The app has been downloaded 5 million times, produced more than 650 million views and averages about 41 million views per month since its launch in June 2012. Albert Cheng, chief product officer and executive vice president of digital media for The Disney/ABC Television Group says the strategy of featuring new content through mobile devices is also about giving viewers more flexibility. “In the past a lot of opportunities were constrained because of time schedule,” he said. “Sometimes when you don’t have enough screens in the house, not everyone gets to watch what they want.”

TV networks are starting to seek out the next generation of subscribers by taking content directly to them, beginning with children’s shows like “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West.” Pre-school aged kids are often watching something through a tablet or smartphone app, Kanter says, and parents feel comfortable letting them the technology. A recent Common Sense Media study found that 72 percent of children under the age of eight and 38 percent of kids under the age of two have used mobile devices.

The massive mobile market is only getting larger. IHS estimates global factory revenue for smartphones and tablets will amount to $354.3 billion this year, three percent more than the revenue for the entire consumer electronics market.

Earlier this month MTV’s success in in releasing the extended “Miley: The Movement” documentary via app emboldened the network to continue exploring premiering more content through mobile platforms. After an hour-long version of the Miley Cyrus film aired on television, MTV asked fans to tweet “unlock Miley” in order to release an extended 90-minute version on the network app. The network saw more than 80 percent increase week over week in app downloads, according to Helms.

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VH1 had similar results after placing a documentary “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story,” exclusively in the newfangled VH1 app for one week before it re-aired on television, leading to 1.4 million streams of the film and other TLC content on the app, according to MTV. CMT and Logo are also preparing to launch network apps.

Though networks like MTV and Disney are recognizing the value of app only content, the question remains whether the same model can apply to more mainstream brands where target demographics are older and broader in age range. Cheng tells TIME the Disney/ABC Group has long explored the idea of releasing original content through mobile delivery on other networks. ABC debuted episodes – although not full seasons – of “Meet the Goldbergs,” “Trophy Wife” and “Back in the Game” online before they aired this year.

Helms agrees the app focus could alter how network audiences sample new content. “I do think it will start to influence how programmers and network think about programing all demos over time,” Helms says. “But ultimately I think these young, digital natives are going to be at the forefront of any new viewing behaviors.”