Binge Viewing and the Shifting TV Landscape
It's a common weekend ritual: you settle down on the sofa, cue up the DVDs or Netflix and rip through entire seasons of TV shows -- lost weekends devoted to so-called "binge-watching."
For many, this is the preferred way of watching, and the practice is altering the dynamics of the media landscape, and changing the way content is being created and distributed.
Call it the evolution of Homo Televisionus: first there were couch potatoes, who would sit for hours while a parade of shows spooled across the screen. Then came channel surfers, who clicked through hundreds of cable stations fighting for fragments of their attention. Now there's a new kind of watcher: the binge-viewer, who inhales an entire season's worth of shows over marathon DVD sessions or, increasingly, streaming video services like Netflix.
Some neuroscientists say binge-watching as a neurological compulsion -- great storytelling produces the chemical equivalent of a trance in the brain. Emotions provoked by stories, whether through books or on TV, create protracted emotional states, inner experiences that viewers want to sustain, causing them to hit "next" and "play" the next episode to find out what happens next.
Others attribute the growth of binge-watching to viewing habits made possible by an irresistible cocktail of technological influences: the cheap availability of streaming content, combined with the growth of broadband and lightning-fast mobile connections. After all, who wouldn't want to take advantage of the convenience, especially when it's a lot cheaper than renting or buying DVDs?
However you explain it, more and more viewers are indulging in lost weekends of marathon TV sessions, and the results are changing the face of the television business in ways no one can predict.
Water Cooler Conversation: Watch or Be Left Out of the Loop
Long before programmable VCRs and DVRs became a reality, watching TV used to be a cultural ritual, a mass media experience that fueled talk around the water cooler and in late-night talk show monologues. People tuned into television at a set time and place, eager to find out who killed J.R. Ewing or what was going on in the Bunker or Cosby families. They had no choice but to tune in at a particular channel, at a specific time, or else miss out on the conversation the day after and wait for reruns or DVDs, weeks or months later, to catch up.
The TV industry, of course, structured its business around network broadcasts, and based on the ratings and audience numbers, the model succeeded, drawing in advertising from companies eager to deliver their messages to a highly-targeted audience.
And it worked: TV profits surged, becoming one of the most effective mass-media formats. One only needs to look at the phenomenon of the Super Bowl to see the power of TV at its highest.
Time-Shifting Is Making TV Execs Nervous
But programmable VCR started a slow shift in viewing habits, and people began to record their favorite shows for later consumption. Then DVRs made the process easier, ushering in the habit of "hoarding" episodes to view at a more convenient time. Ever so slowly, the urgency of the original broadcast date began to wane.
Industry executives call it "time-shifting" -- the ability to delay an episode to a later time that's more convenient to watch -- and insiders began to worry it would influence a drop in audience ratings and ad revenue. Healthy revenues from strong DVDs sales reassured them -- a false reassurance, as it would turn out -- because time-shifting would be the beginning of the end for the traditional TV business model, picking up pace with viewers with the advent of streaming video.
Of course, not many people saw it coming. No one took Netflix and Hulu seriously at first, seeing them as small fish in a big pond. Many in the industry felt confident that their bigger TV screens would overwhelm streaming video due to an inferior experience. Who would want watch a show on a computer screen, on spotty connections with constant interruptions?
As it turns out, a lot of people. TV executives sat back, astonished, as Netflix's streaming experiment grew into a subscriber base of over 23 million. Rivals like Hulu and Amazon Prime began attracting numbers, as well.
More worrying, TV ratings began stagnating, DVD sales started plummeting and, worse of all, TV advertising began dropping. According to research firm Kantor, the TV industry had one of its worst ad revenue levels in 2009 -- not coincidentally, at the beginning of Netflix's peak of success -- and though TV recovered slightly in 2010 and 2011, it has yet to reach its former strength.
Netflix and other streaming video outlets have altered the media industry in ways no one could have foreseen. They've succeeded in large part because: 1. broadband and mobile infrastructure grew; 2. large investments smoothed out the streaming process; and, most importantly, 3. large quantities of content, particularly TV, became available to viewers right at their fingertips, all at a very low cost.
That last point was critical to the phenomenon of binge-watching: whereas before it was expensive to buy entire seasons on DVD, now it's much more affordable to watch an entire season on Netflix -- at about the price of one big-screen movie admission. Call it extreme time-shifting, if you will: now you can miss entire seasons of a show and just wait for the whole thing to come out at once.
And it turns out, people are taking advantage of this -- Netflix has long noted its most active users tend to view marathon sessions in a few rounds. Take "Breaking Bad," one of the most binged shows on Netflix. Nearly three in four members streaming the first season finished all seven episodes in one session, according to Netflix. And seasons two and three, each with 13 episodes, boast an even higher binge-watching rate, with completion rates of 81 and 85 percent, respectively.
Even noted TV producers and writers are binge-viewing. Scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin told the Wall Street Journal he devoured seasons of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" in just a few intense sessions. And David Miner, producer of "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation," finished three seasons of "Breaking Bad" while exercising daily on a treadmill -- and lost 25 pounds in the process.
Binge-viewing is affecting TV culture, and business, in several unexpected ways. Due to the intense marathon nature of TV-binging, shows with particularly complex storylines like "Lost" are finding a second life, as fans new and old continue to watch it well after it's been taken off the air. In addition, obscure shows, often from overseas, are resonating with U.S. audiences, who often stumble upon them on Netflix and devour them in just a few viewings.
Old shows are getting new life, too: the availability of "Arrested Development" on Netflix is giving the Bluth family another run, and the video streaming giant is now producing an exclusive season of the off-beat comedy classic, available exclusively to its subscribers. Marathon viewing even helped boost the ratings of network shows like "Mad Men," whose viewers were able to catch up on past seasons before new ones premiered on AMC.
As a result, ratings for "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" have soared with each new season, fed in large part by an active run on Netflix -- going against the grain of traditional expectations. AMC president Charlie Collier said: "With Mad Men and Breaking Bad, each year has been better [in the ratings] than the year prior, and that's not the norm in historic TV-watching trends."
Of course, Netflix, Hulu and streaming services are reveling with the rise of binge-viewing, which is now an unexpected weapon in the battle to keep subscribers. For example, Netflix released a "post play" feature this summer to encourage binge sessions. As an episode ends and credits roll, a pop-up menu prompts viewers to play the next show.
The timing is carefully calibrated by an algorithm that determines when you're most likely to click off. If you do nothing, the next episode starts automatically -- and if it's a well-written, well-produced show, you'll likely be hooked in the initial episode teaser, just like you are on TV.
Advertisers Caught in the Middle
Viewers may love marathon TV viewing, and video streaming services may love it even more, but the practice has TV executives in a tailspin. On one hand, the passionate appetite for their content reassures them that their assets are in high demand, and prices for their product can only go higher. After initially selling content to Netflix and Amazon at cut-rate prices because they thought digital streaming would go nowhere, TV executives now have a great ace in the hole, and are making digital licensing pay off.
But on the other hand, binge-watching leaves little room for all-important advertisers. Broadcast TV's entire structure, from the rhythm and pacing of the shows to the type of programming approved by networks, was centered -- for better or for worse -- around advertising, which simply doesn't generate the same revenue online as off.
And the appetite for binging is disrupting the traditional pecking order when it comes to syndication -- rebroadcast rights and other highly-profitable secondary revenue streams for the TV industry. Viewers naturally want the latest material on services like Netflix, but cable and satellite providers pay hefty licensing fees to syndicate the latest shows and movies soon after their original broadcast. This window is one of cable's key advantages, justifying their high-priced subscriptions.
For the most part, TV networks have respected this hierarchy -- Netflix doesn't get the latest seasons of "The Walking Dead," or other AMC shows until a year after they're aired. Meanwhile, cable and satellite partners offer episodes on-demand the next day. But cable is wondering why it pays such high prices when Netflix pays such relatively small sums, and the pricing difference has become a huge point of contention in the industry, prompting cable to shed channels in protest.
Pay-TV provider Dish Network, for example, dropped AMC from its service, citing in part AMC's deal to make its entire library of past "Mad Men" episodes available to Netflix. DirectTV claimed deals like that devalues content overall, and dropped Viacom channels like MTV and Nickelodeon in part over price disputes, pointing Viacom's deals with Netflix as part of the conflict.
Overall, the industry has yet to strike a balance between traditional business practices and the changing dynamics of new media. And the back-and-forth is making for dissatisfied cable customers, who expect channels like AMC and MTV as part of their expensive cable packages.
A New Kind of TV Show
Beyond business, the people who create and write shows are grappling with the effects of binge-watching, video streaming and the changes to their medium. Netflix, in developing its own original programming, is releasing entire seasons of shows like "Lilyhammer," and the forthcoming David Fincher political drama "House of Cards," instead of following the episode-by-episode model.
The move surprised many industry stalwarts, who expected Netflix to replicate the broadcast network model. But considering its subscriber base increasingly favors binge-viewing, the best way to keep them hooked is to cater to those habits.
As a result, streaming-only shows are helping to pioneer new forms of serial entertainment. Episodes no longer need to hew closely to the teaser-dependent story structure that accommodates ads. And marathon viewing sessions are making more complex storylines possible, for example, with subtle nuances and details more apparent, and creating and rewarding audiences that can watch more closely and intensely.
The possibilities are exciting: for instance, horror director Eli Roth and Brian McGreevy think of their upcoming Netflix series "Hemlock Grove" not as a series of episodes, but as a "13-hour independent film." It's being released as an entire season, so more than a few viewers, to say the least, will likely watch it as a 13-hour movie, with perhaps a few breaks in between.
In addition, Netflix plans to release its new season of "Arrested Development" by building each of 10 episodes around one character. Each show will unfold simultaneously with the others, overlapping here and there for a new approach to storytelling.
The comedy's creator, Mitch Hurwitz, said the challenge of making a show for binge-watching upended the creative process. "We're sort of driving into the next episode rather than wrapping things up," he said. If Hurwitz and his team executes on the promise, the results will keep you clicking "next."
A Wider Horizon
Purists, of course, decry binge-watching, saying it takes away from the reflection that makes TV watching so rewarding. Others, meanwhile, claim it takes away from the sense of community. In addition, binge-watching disrupts timelines in sync with viewers, according to Slate -- after all, isn't watching Charlie Brown's Christmas better when it's actually Christmas? Of course, other critics counter by highlighting that complex storylines are more possible when the memory of previous episodes is fresh in viewers' mind, and the debate will likely continue over binge-watching's consequences.
In an age where "distraction" is derided as a consequence of technological process, the trend towards binge-watching is a reassuring sign of a continued appetite for TV entertainment. The most intriguing story of all, however, is whether the media industry as a whole -- from executives watching ratings to writers and producers ironing out storylines -- can harness the appetite demonstrated by binging. But industry watchers will have to sit through this sea-change the old-fashioned way -- and let time play out. ♦
Categories: Features | Media Mind