Television producers have turned bingeing, hoarding and overeating into successful prime-time shows for years, but now they are having to turn their attention to another example of overindulgence – TV watching.
Binge-viewing, empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions, has become such a popular way for Americans to watch TV that it is beginning to influence the ways the stories are told – particularly one-hour dramas – and how they are distributed.
Some people, peer-pressured to watch “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” catch up on previous seasons to see what all the fuss is about before a new season begins. Others plan weekend marathons of classics like “The West Wing” and “The Wire.” Like other American pastimes, things can get competitive: People have been known to brag about finishing a whole 12-episode season of “Homeland” in one sitting.
On Friday, Netflix released a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.
“House of Cards,” which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they don’t remember, Google is just a click away. The show “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.
The producer Glen Mazzara took a similar approach to AMC’s “The Walking Dead” this year. In the second half of the season, which will start in mid-February after a two-month break, “we decided to pick up the action right away – to just jump right in,” Mazzara said. Fans of the show, he said, have little tolerance for recaps, since many of them will have just watched a marathon of the first half to prepare for the second.
That fans even have a choice in the matter is a testament to the fundamental changes under way in the TV business. Digital video recorders, video-on-demand capabilities and streaming websites have given viewers command of what they watch and when, not unlike the way the invention of supermarkets gave food shoppers a panoply of new choices. In both cases, some consumers love to binge.
While the vast majority of TV is still watched live, not recorded, the ratings for some series – like FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” – double after a week of recorded viewing is counted. A first-of-its-kind Nielsen study last fall found that a handful of shows gain an extra 5 percent after another three weeks.
Nielsen does not routinely count viewers who wait more than a week to watch an episode, nor does it count most of the viewers who watch online, so it’s hard to estimate the true amount of binge viewing. Some hoarders wait years: Mazzara, for instance, said he’s waiting to watch HBO’s “Girls” until the whole series is over, several years from now. This stockpiling phenomenon has become so common that some network executives worry that it’s hurting new shows because they cancel the shows before would-be viewers get around to watching them.In recognition of these changes, some networks are pushing to expand the metrics that determine advertising rates – from the current three-day ratings to a seven-day rating that would better account for on-demand habits.
Binge-viewing has been around at least since the advent of videotapes, when companies started to sell box sets of shows. But it has come of age because of the digital catalogs on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other websites.
Nonetheless, the traditional TV cliffhanger is far from dead. The producers of shows – even the five beginning on Netflix this year – know they have to satisfy multiple types of audiences. Said David Fincher, the acclaimed film director who is working with Willimon on “House of Cards” for Netflix, “I want to make sure that people who set the book down on the night stand are able to connect the dots, but I also want the people who are rabidly turning pages to go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got all that.’ ”
In some corners of Hollywood there is deep skepticism about Netflix’s all-at-once release of “House of Cards.” Willimon acknowledged the advantages to stretching out a season – it’s a format viewers are used to, there’s more time for marketing – but said that as a storyteller (he’s best known for the play “Farragut North,” which inspired the film “The Ides of March”) he prefers the “House of Cards” approach.
As TV becomes less beholden to the schedule and more acclimated to the Web, he said, “it might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause.”