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February 12, 2014

The Binge Bang Theory

Binge viewing may be sending spoiler alerts across the internet – and sometimes compressing entire TV seasons into one lazy Sunday – but it looks like it’s here to stay.

Daniel Frankel

It seems only yesterday that the TV season began in September and ended in May.

Almost overnight, it has been compressed into a vacation week, a lazy Sunday or a sick day.

That’s because of Netflix, of course. The streaming service has quickly become one of television’s most delightfully disruptive forces, not only changing the way programming is paid for, produced and distributed, but how audiences are measured.

Perhaps most disruptive is its bold strategy of releasing entire seasons of its new original shows at once — letting viewers watch thirteen or more episodes in quick succession — rather than releasing one episode at a time, week by week, over the course of several months.

But is this new way to view your favorite shows a good thing for the television business? Is binging — defined by Netflix as watching two or more episodes of a show in a single sitting — the way most programming will be consumed in the on-demand future?

Netflix executives definitely believe so. And according to recent viewer studies, so do many of its nearly 40 million subscribers. But television critics, along with a number of Netflix competitors, aren’t so sure. They question how a show’s social-media-fueled buzz factor will be affected when an entire season is consumed in a cocoon of isolation.

It is certainly a hot topic within the industry.

Did Binging Really Boost Breaking Bad?

In recent interviews, Vince Gilligan — creator and executive producer of perhaps the most-binged show in recent memory, Breaking Bad — has wondered aloud whether his program, lightly viewed in its initial seasons on AMC, would have ever found the mass audience it eventually did if legions of new viewers hadn’t caught up with the series on platforms like Netflix, then seamlessly joined the five-season-long train of serialized dramatic storytelling.

Of course, Netflix didn’t invent binge viewing. In the late 1990s, cable networks started airing marathons of classic shows just as viewers were learning to store their favorite series on their digital video recorders. A decade later, binge behavior became routine with the emergence of TV on DVD.

Yet the practice had its limitations. In a world still dominated by ad-supported linear television, there were commercials to skip through and those discs weren’t going to swap out themselves.

But in the on-demand realm of the internet, binging has become ubiquitous, and Netflix has taken the practice to a whole new level, with the next episode of almost any popular serialized drama viewers may have missed on broadcast or cable — Rescue Me, The Tudors, Damages, et cetera — automatically queuing up as soon as the previous installment ends.

Like the next irresistible chapter of a best-selling novel, this system entices the viewer to say, “Okay, just one more episode….”

“They’ve more or less built a perfect mousetrap, and [binge viewing] has become an elemental part of it,” says Verne Gay, TV critic for Newsday.

Other subscription video-on-demand services — like Amazon Prime, Hulu or HBO Go — have also introduced software that swiftly transitions viewers to the next episode. Perhaps most importantly, they have solid libraries of shows to binge on.

But binging on television’s archival past is one thing. Using the strategy with new seasons and fresh episodes had never been done until Netflix introduced its first original series last year.

The New Normal for New Shows

In February 2013, after committing more than $100 million to produce the first season of the Emmy-winning drama House of Cards, Netflix made the first thirteen episodes available for viewing all at once.

The company did the same thing for its next original, the reboot of the Fox comedy Arrested Development, unspooling all fifteen first-season episodes last May. It did it again two months later, with the debut of Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black.

Suddenly, binging became a central component of the company’s overall strategy.

Touting explosive subscriber growth of late, Netflix executives say the creation of premium original shows is central to its plan and the game-changing “Binge on it” strategy is working.

In December, Netflix proudly headlined a press release, “Binge-Watching Is the New Normal.”

More than 60% of Netflixers Binge Regularly, Study Says  

That release featured a study by independent research firm Harris Interactive revealing that 61 percent of 1,500 Netflix users surveyed said they regularly binge-stream shows on Netflix, and 79 percent said TV is more enjoyable when several episodes are consumed at one time.

Meanwhile, another study conducted by Los Angeles entertainment research firm MarketCast found that 80 percent of survey respondents in their twenties said they regularly binge on TV shows online.

“Our viewing data shows that the majority of streamers would actually prefer to have a whole season available to watch at their own pace,” said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix, in the company release.

“Netflix has pioneered audience choice in programming and has helped free consumers from the limitations of linear television.

Our own original series are created for multi-episodic viewing, lining up the content with new norms of viewer control for the first time.”

Of course, since Netflix does not share its viewer data, it’s difficult to determine if this strategy is increasing viewership or influencing subscriber growth. But Netflix has undoubtedly shifted consumer expectations, and competitors have had to respond.

Comcast, Hulu Fall in Line

Shortly after the premiere of House of Cards last year, cable TV giant Comcast made 3,500 episodes of various popular series — many of them premium cable shows, such as Game of Thrones, Spartacus, Girls, Dexter and Californication — available for binge-watching on the on-demand portion of its service for one week.

Comcast subscribers could gorge on the older seasons of these shows even if they didn’t pay for the channel from which they originated.

Hulu, meanwhile, responded by making more than 700 episodes from the various Star Trek TV series available for binge viewing on its free platform.

So far, no other programmer has been so bold as to post a full season of new original episodes for continuous consumption — but they have been thinking about it.

Amazon Mulled All-At-Once Strategy for Alpha House 

Just days before his company was set to debut the first post-pilot episodes of its new original comedy Alpha House, Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, said he and his team were still mulling how many first-season episodes of the show they would make available in November.

Ultimately, they decided to debut only the second and third episodes, before rolling out each of the remaining seven installments every Friday.

“All things being equal, I think people like to have all the episodes available at once,” Price admitted (Amazon, too, has gobs of publicly shielded viewer data from which to draw conclusions). But an all-at-once strategy would have had consequences, namely delaying the premiere of Alpha House.

In fact, the real-world physics of the TV production cycle seem to have influenced Netflix, too.

How Kids on Vacay Influenced the Turbo Fast Team

When it came to the release of the animated kids series Turbo Fast — a spinoff of the DreamWorks Animation feature film Turbo, released in summer 2013 — Netflix executives wanted to debut the show over the subsequent winter holidays, when the characters were still fresh in the minds of young viewers, who — importantly — were out of school and able to binge.

With only five episodes in the can, however, the company opted for a truncated first season, releasing those first five installments on Christmas Eve and telling subscribers, in effect, “We’ll have more episodes real soon.”

The Waiting Game

In this regard, there is one issue recent binging surveys haven’t addressed: will viewers of shows like House of Cards be willing to wait until the entire new season is written, shot, edited and encoded?

Indeed, the release of season two of House of Cards — February 14 — comes 54 weeks after the release of season 1. For viewers who binged on season 1, that is a long time to wait.

For Amazon’s Roy Price, another factor weighing in his decision to release Alpha House in the more traditional, staggered fashion was the isolation that tends to accompany binge viewing.

According to the Harris Interactive study, nearly half of bingers prefer to practice their viewer gluttony alone.

Binging, Price added, “does create a problem for the water cooler. You can see that in the numbers.”

Water Cooler Problems: Spoilers

Even in the DVR age, the weekly incremental unfurling of a popular series allows buzz to build organically: next-day recaps proliferate on the internet and in newspapers; fans share their thoughts, questions and predictions in social media; and yes, a few people still talk about shows at the office water cooler.

“There are advantages to the classic model, particularly in the social media environment,” says Gay of Newsday. “Binging can be a solipsistic exercise — watch when you want — that doesn’t emphasize sharing the experience.”

Indeed, with viewers consuming episodes on vastly different schedules, the opportunity to create natural buzz gets lost amid the online rash of spoiler alerts. It’s very difficult for two people to discuss a show — on social media or even in person — when one person is on episode four and the other has already finished the season.

“Great TV is also all about anticipation, waiting for the next episode, wondering what it will bring, musing about character and motive,” Gay adds. “With binging, the wait is over instantly. For someone who wants gratification instantly, that’s fine. But too much all at once can rob us of that collective social-media moment when everyone is sharing their reactions at the same time.”

Beyond affecting the more esoteric aspects of the viewer experience in ways it may not yet understand, Netflix’s strategy of enabling bingers has also rendered unanticipated economic repercussions.

Netflix is Adjusting Business Practices, Hastings Says  

While Netflix was reporting its fiscal 2013 third-quarter performance to investors in October, company CEO Reed Hastings flummoxed some analysts and members of the media with this declaration: “When we started with original content, we didn’t have specific data about viewing patterns for content that premiered on Netflix.

"We decided to use straight-line amortization based on our experience with TV series from other networks. Now we have more specific viewing data for original content, which shows more viewing in the early months of a show’s debut, so we are accelerating the amortization of such content commensurately. We’ll continue to monitor the viewing patterns and adjust the amortization schedule as appropriate.”

Hastings was essentially telling investors that Netflix subscribers were consuming its original series so fast, that the company needed to accelerate the schedule for applying production expenses to the bottom line.

Will Netflix stick to its all-at-once strategy?

At least for now, the answer seems to be yes.

While segmenting season 1 of Turbo Fast, the company nonetheless released all 8 episodes of the second season of Norwegian coproduction Lilyhammer in December (and picked up the third season, to be aired sometime in 2014). And all 13 second-season episodes of House of Cards will be available on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

It seems viewers will have a choice of spending that day with the person they love… or the online series they just might adore.

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