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Binge Viewing: What Is It?

Annie Lloyd |
February 13, 2013 | 9:14 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Netflix's New Original Series
Netflix's New Original Series
I’m Annie and I’m a television addict. My addiction started with isolated incidents as a precocious grade schooler. I would go to Blockbuster with my best friend and we would get a season of “Scrubs,” some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and spend the rest of the day churning through as many episodes as we could (while gradually going into a Cherry Garcia coma). What we couldn’t satisfy with rentals we got with its syndication on Comedy Central and a local TV station. The addiction compounded after that. I started with easily palatable content: “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Office,” among others. As I grew older my tolerance increased. I was soon playing episode after episode of “Twin Peaks” and “Breaking Bad,” using shows like “Party Down” as a quick comedy hit. Watching “Community” non-stop caused me to start speaking in short sentences with lots of finger pointing à la Abed. My most recent binge was “Mad Men.” The start of the new semester has forced me to quit cold turkey, though, so my craving for Don Draper’s enigmatically sexy face has been coursing through my veins with no satisfaction. 

Sound familiar?

“Binge viewing,” as someone somewhere coined, is the process of shutting oneself off to external forces in order to consume entire seasons of a television show over a small course of time. While not always as extreme as Doug and Claire of “Portlandia”’s viewing of “Battlestar Galactica,” the process has become a ubiquitous force in the realm of television watching. What has caused this shift in viewing habits, and what does it mean for the future of television?

The abundance of services dedicated to offering past seasons of TV shows has made catching up on currently airing shows incredibly easy. Either on Netflix, iTunes, or less reputable websites (we all know them), the entire history of television has become accessible to anyone with a computer. We can watch it without commercials or we can surf the web during whatever commercial breaks stubbornly remain. We can watch it anywhere and at any time. If multiple seasons have already aired, we don’t have to wait through the months-long hiatus before the next season premiere. The need to binge also comes from television’s adoption of serialized series. While marathoning “Law & Order: SVU” still occurs, it doesn’t happen as fervently as watching sequential episodes of a show with a continuing story line. In a movie, you have to get through at most two and a half hours to see what happens; for a show, it could be upwards of a hundred episodes. 

Binge watching TV shows does have some drawbacks, however. By watching it all in one season, you lose the excitement and discussion that comes after a major cliffhanger. Episodes can have a tendency to blur together. For the viewer, these effects are pretty minor. Arguably, the bigger problems happen on the side of the networks. The Nielsen Company doesn’t take marathons on a rainy weekend into consideration when counting a show’s ratings. These ratings, while flawed, serve as the networks’ primary tools in attracting advertisers. And, for these channels that don’t get subscriber fees, advertisers are the number one source of revenue. Binge viewing does have one potential helpful quality. Watching an entire series in a short amount of time allows a viewer to catch up before the new season airs. A new viewer doesn’t have to worry about feeling confused during a season premiere because he or she can watch every prior episode. This opens up a pool of new viewers to currently airing shows. 

Regardless of its economic benefits or problems, one thing is for certain: watching an entire series with no breaks has taken its place as the top form, or at least most discussed form, of consuming television. One company stands out with its aggressive attempt to tap into this habit. Netflix’s new show “House of Cards” premiered on its website February 1, 2013, with the entire series available at once. The thirteen-episode season, starring Kevin Spacey and produced by David Fincher, is Netflix’s biggest attempt to place itself as competition for the major broadcast and cable networks. It will employ the same strategy this May with the release of the fourth season of “Arrested Development.” Netflix has invigorated the show in recent years due to the ability to watch every episode back-to-back. While this method has become popular for viewers, it’s still too early to tell if it will be economically rewarding. And, as the television industry currently exists, the transfer of binge habits to the production side of things will grow only if it turns a profit.

Reach Staff Reporter Annie Lloyd here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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