The Rise of Binge-Watching


Netflix’s recent foray into original programming signifies a large shift within the TV industry.

Two decades ago, millions of Americans would gather in front of their television sets every Thursday night to enjoy the newest episode of Seinfeld. Watching TV was a live and social exercise, something that was pre-planned and then discussed at the water cooler the following day.

Those days are over. In our current on-demand society, consumers want what they want, when they want it. In recent years, aging technology in the marketplace has spawned a plethora of viewing options. Instant-streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and home digital video recorders cater directly to television junkies searching for their next fix. With no limitations on content or timing, instant streaming means instant gratification. Consequently, the age of binge-watching – viewing multiple episodes of a show in a single sitting – is upon us.

Joe Flint, a business entertainment staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, likens the phenomenon to indulging in snack food.

“I would use the analogy that watching some TV shows now has become like eating potato chips or M&M’s,” said Flint. “Nobody can have just one.”

The relationship between a television show and a dedicated viewer is powerful. It is poignant, dynamic and real. Whereas movies enter and leave your life in a matter of mere hours, the world created in television is ongoing; we develop relationships and genuinely invest in the well being of our favorite characters. It affects our mood when Omar Little runs out of (Honey Nut) Cheerios or when Tony Soprano’s hubris clouds against his better judgment yet again.

The ability to binge-watch shows has magnified this connection. Sit down for an episode of Lost and before you know it, you are so deep in the jungle that the smoke monster haunts your dreams. Follow the money in The Wire and several episodes later, you have taken a trip to the ghettos of Baltimore and back. It’s an indulgence that is both personal and pervasive, an activity conducted in isolation and based on control. Everyone has a show that they are catching up on.

“It’s definitely safe to say it is a phenomenon,” said Daniel Greentree, a 23-year-old medical student and avid television viewer. “People go from show to show, compulsively watching each one very quickly and in a short time frame…it’s crazy how viewing television has changed, even just within my lifetime.”

On the other hand, there is still something to be said for the live experience. Take the way we view TV now – we use Twitter and Facebook to react and speculate in real time so that by the time we get to the water cooler the next day, it’s practically old news. Our water cooler is social media, and if you happen to be lagging behind, good luck avoiding spoilers while navigating your top bookmarks.

The recent series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad illustrates this struggle. The episode ran on September 29 to a massive audience of 10.3 million, according to a Nielsen report. Several million more are presumably in the process of catching up on the show. As expected, Twitter exploded like a machine gun with reactions from the series-ender as fans discussed, speculated and digested the end of Walter White. A week before the finale in anticipation of this eruption, Netflix launched a “Spoiler Foiler” application, designed to block any Tweet that could potentially “spoil” the ending for future viewers. We care this much.

So we binge-watch to catch up on shows so that we are able participate in this new-age live viewing experience. But it wasn’t always this way.

The year was 1999 and with rare exceptions, the major commercial broadcast television networks produced the large majority of programming. HBO was less than a decade into its original programming foray, which had moderate critical and financial success. Its newest show was about to change the game and grow the cable network into the giant that it is today.

With The Sopranos, HBO ushered in a modern era of television and created a blueprint for how the hour-long serialized drama is written. Surround a polarizing main character – Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White – with an ensemble cast that serves to both redeem and challenge the moral ambiguity of his actions and you have the platform for a long-running series. Since The Sopranos first aired, the quality of television shows has gradually improved. In recent years, TV has risen to such a level – in terms of production, acting, writing – that it’s longstanding place in Hollywood has even changed.

“I wouldn’t say that television has quite surpassed movies in terms of quality, but I do think that TV being the bastard stepchild of the entertainment industry is definitely over,” said AJ Marachel, a TV Reporter for Variety in Los Angeles. “You are definitely seeing a creative move toward television and some of the big names that are making the move is giving the business more clout.”

Last month at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, Breaking Bad received the highest honors, winning best drama show for the first time in four nominations. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, humbly acknowledged the role that Netflix played in keeping the show alive.

“Netflix kept us on the air,” Gilligan said after accepting his award.

In 1999, Netflix was launched as a provider of on-demand streaming media. Over the years, the platform acquired more and more content to offer its growing and increasingly hungry subscribers. In 2010, the company offered a home streaming service as a separate option to its DVD rentals.

In 2013, Netflix expanded to become a streaming television service, producing original programming. After outbidding HBO for rights to the series, committing $100 million over the course of two seasons, Netflix debuted with House of Cards, a political thriller with Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey at the helm. On February 1, 2013, all 13 first-season episodes were released at once and the mad scramble began. For the first time, audiences were essentially binge-watching live.

“By releasing the episodes all at once, it creates a sort of manic behavior among the people eager to see the show,” said Flint. “It becomes this thing that they have to watch through and watch quickly.”

For those that did indulge early and often, it was a blurry whirl. By the fourth consecutive hour, viewers could not help but inhale the second-hand smoke from Frank Underwood’s late-night cigarettes as he corruptly navigated the U.S. political system underworld. The show, constructed with a watchful eye for its binge-watching constituency, moved at a seamless pace from one episode to the next, with story arcs clear and well defined.

Earlier this summer at the Edinburg Television Festival, Spacey spoke emphatically about the benefits of bingeing on TV through instant-streaming options like Netflix and where the future of television is heading.

“The success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once – proved one thing: the audience wants the control. They want the freedom,” said Spacey in a video that has gone viral. “If they want to binge like they’ve been doing on House of Cards and lots of other shows, we should let them binge.”

Netflix has subsequently expanded its original offerings with recent hits Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove and Orange is the New Black. At the Emmy’s, the new “network” received 14 total nominations, nine of which were for House of Cards.

“Ultimately for Netflix the real test will come in a few years, and we will see from their financial performance whether their dip into original programming will pay off as a strategy,” said Flint.

So far, so good – according to a Nielsen report, the percentage of American homes that have Netflix subscriptions rose to 38 percent in 2013, from 21 percent last year, for a total of 29.17 million subscribers, more than HBO. According to that same report, 88 percent of Netflix subscribers report binge-watching frequently.

“Binge-watching a show is a totally different experience,” said Greentree. “It’s almost like a drug – you find yourself addicted and you can’t stop.”

With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon continuing to develop original programming to complement their extensive existing show offerings, television addicts will have no reason to stop anytime soon.