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FX Chief John Landgraf Says 80% of TV Viewing is ‘Lean-Back’ - What Does That Mean for Streamers?

Ben Bowman

As you read this, billions of dollars are in motion to keep you entertained on your favorite streaming platforms. But most of that content will whiz past your head into the darkness and you’ll never know it existed. When platforms are creating their content slates, many are investing in what’s called “lean-forward” entertainment. When you’re watching “Squid Game” or “House of the Dragon” or “Severance,” you probably don’t have your phone on. You’re engrossed in the story. You need to pay attention.

But there’s a second category of content labeled “lean-back” entertainment. That’s the kind of stuff you have on in the background while you scroll your phone or make dinner or fold laundry. Your attention is intermittent, but advertisers could still sneak in a message or two.

In an interview with Vulture, FX chief John Landgraf revealed an interesting statistic. “No matter how much new, original programming you throw at the viewer, the equilibrium point seems to be that they spend around 20 percent of their time watching lean-forward scripted programming and about 80 percent of their time watching some form of lean-back, more passive programming,” Landgraf explained.

Landgraf cited the example of the Simpsons World app that featured on demand streaming alongside linear “channels” of reruns. Viewership fell along those percentages he outlined: 4 out of 5 people preferred a virtual channel to selecting the episodes one-by-one.

This sentiment was echoed by Paramount leadership when Paramount+ launched its linear channels in 2021. “Even in the era of on-demand, there is clearly a strong consumer appetite for reimagined linear channels that provide effortless, lean-back entertainment,” said Tom Ryan, President and CEO of Paramount Streaming. “Inspired and informed by the winning model Pluto TV pioneered and popularized, these highly curated channels underscore the power of our unified streaming organization and serve as a product differentiator in the SVOD space, by offering subscribers yet another way to experience and discover programming on Paramount+.”

Adding linear channels can make a streamer more sticky. As Ryan mentioned in a 2022 Paramount+ investor presentation, people who use linear channels spend 40% more time on the service than they did previously.

In recent years, Netflix stumbled as it lost some of its most popular shows: “The Office” (now on Peacock) and “Friends” (now on HBO Max). But given Landgraf’s comments, it stands to reason that people were simply using those shows as background “comfort food” TV. Although Netflix doesn’t have linear “channels,” people were simply bingeing seasons of these shows while focusing elsewhere. The return of “Seinfeld” to Netflix may stop some of the bleeding, but the problem for Netflix is that very little of its exclusive library fits the lean-back definition. Most of Netflix’s lineup is intended to be lean-forward. So is the service losing out on a key audience?

As time goes on, we’re likely to see content spun out lots of different ways: You’ll have the best movies and shows behind a paywall with an ad-supported tier. Forgotten shows or “filler” content will be available on FAST services. And streamers that have long-running shows will likely create those virtual channels to keep audiences stuck to the platform. The problem for streamers without a 100-year catalog is that those channels are difficult to create. If Apple TV+ created a channel for “Ted Lasso,” that’s only 22 episodes to pull from.

The most successful lean-back channels are easy to join and walk away from. You could watch any episode of a beloved sitcom and it wouldn’t matter which season you were in. Try to join a “Game of Thrones” linear channel in progress and you’d have to whip out several family trees and consult fan blogs to remember who died when and who married whom.

If, in fact, 80 percent of our time is spent with passive viewing, streamers are going to have to find a way to scratch that itch. We’d all love a streaming service packed with edge-of-your-seat entertainment, but the true winners may be those that just provide some nice background noise.

Services with Virtual Channels

Many streamers are capitalizing on the desire to have “background TV,” even on a primarily SVOD platform. FAST platforms like Pluto TV, Plex, Roku Channel, and Tubi offer great ad-supported options, but here are some premium services offering these virtual channels.


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