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korraThe digital transition: it’s not just for books.

With the advent of tablets and smartphones with fast cellular connections (or wifi), there’s been a critical shift in the way media are consumed. I’ve talked about that before:

In the early days of the Internet, companies invested in computer-on-TV devices, assuming that when convergence came, everything would converge through the TV set. They invariably flopped. But now that we have small screens we can always carry with us, with processors good enough and Internet fast enough to stream video in real time, more and more people are choosing to watch TV on those screens, via services like Netflix and Hulu or even disruptive startups like the legally-embattled Aereo. Cable television isn’t viewed as necessary anymore, with these other programming sources available. Streaming services are funding their own TV series, such as Netflix’s House of Cards.

And of course Amazon’s been getting into the act with its own original programming, too.

I’m certainly no different than anyone else in that regard. When I go into the kitchen to wash my dishes, I like to prop up my Nexus or Nook tablet in the cupboard over the counter and watch Cosmos while I wash. It’s certainly nice to have something to occupy my brain while my hands do menial work, and there’s no way I could possibly fit a TV in there, or have anything good to watch on it if I did.

But lately I’ve just received more evidence that this transition is starting to happen faster and faster. It involves one of my favorite TV shows, Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

Korra is in its third season (well, technically second season, by the way the network counts them), and has been airing for the last few weeks at two episodes a night on Nickelodeon Friday nights. Up until last night, that is, when it aired only one episode. To fans’ consternation, Nick announced it would be pulling the last five episodes off the air entirely, and releasing them via on-line streaming on its website and services such as Hulu instead.

This may very well be the first time ever that a TV network has pulled a show off the air in the middle of a season to switch to digital-release only. It’s certainly an unexpected development.

But why did they do it? The series creators addressed the matter at Comic-Con, wherein some surprising information came to light. Bryan Konietzko explained:

[P]ulling [The Legend of Korra] off the channel and moving it to digital exclusively is part of the huge sea change in the whole industry. I’m sure you’ve seen articles about cable numbers and streaming and companies doing their own content and all sorts of stuff. So obviously we’re in the middle of a huge change. And things have changed just for us since we did in Avatar in 2005-2008 and then when we came back in 2012. And when Book 1 of Korra came out it did pretty good on TV but its online presence was just insane. Not only the chatter from all the fans but the actual numbers in terms of digital downloads and streaming, it’s just been huge. And as the show’s gone along, by Book 2, the numbers in the digital streaming greatly outweighed the channel .

And there you have it: considerably more people watched the show online than on the TV network, so the channel pulled the show off the network and will be putting it exclusively online.

Fans would point out that it’s not exactly a surprise that ratings for the show on the network have been terrible this season. Nick rushed the episodes to air starting only a week or so after several of the episodes leaked from an affiliate web site—with no promotion or advertising whatsoever. (Fans speculate that Nick was probably originally planning to begin airing them later, building publicity at Comic-Con, before the leaks forced their hand, but there’s been no official word on that.)

Furthermore, the Friday night timeslot in which they had been airing is more or less a kiss of death for anything showing there; the first season of Korra had been shown in a more viable Saturday morning slot instead. Fans would note that this hasn’t been the first time Nick has mishandled Korra, or its predecessor Avatar: The Last Airbender. Honestly, the show is so far outside Nick’s usual milieu that it’s a little puzzling how it ever got greenlit in the first place, so it’s not exactly surprising they have trouble figuring out what to do with it—for all that it’s one of Nick’s most popular shows of all time in terms of online fans.

As for those high streaming numbers, many fans don’t have access to Nickelodeon, or might otherwise not be able to watch it at the time it airs. (I don’t even have a TV.) Streaming it via Nick (or some other legal alternative, such as Hulu) is going to be the only (legal) way they can watch it. (And who knows how many people watched it via peer-to-peer downloads, especially since Nick didn’t put the episodes up for streaming the day after they aired this season as it has for prior ones?)

That being said, I’ve heard more than one fan of other shows (for example, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) express worry that networks might kill their show because of low broadcast ratings, because those ratings didn’t take into account streaming numbers. But here, the network is basically pulling the show off the air because of the streaming numbers. (It’s a bit odd that it doesn’t feel it can spare a paltry half an hour to air an episode it’s already bought and paid for, even so, but who can know what goes through the mind of network execs?)

This transition probably isn’t going to have much effect on all those fans for whom the Internet is the preferred way of watching the show anyway—especially those folks with home theater PCs they hook up to their TV set. Unfortunately, those who prefer to see it on TV are going to feel left out—but if Nick’s numbers are to be believed, there are a lot fewer of those.

Korra’s creators insist that this will not affect the creation of the upcoming “Book Four” (the latter half of season two as the network numbers it), which is already well into post-production. But it’s anybody’s guess how or where the show will air at this point.

Still, no matter how you have to watch it, it’s definitely worth watching. It’s not quite as good as the original Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I feel is one of the best TV shows—not just best animated TV shows, but best TV shows period—to have been made in the last ten years), but it’s still head and shoulders over most other stuff on TV today. If you haven’t watched any of the Avatar shows, Amazon has all 61 episodes of The Last Airbender available for free streaming to Prime subscribers. I highly recommend binge-watching.

 
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