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‘Binge Viewing’ Changes the TV Landscape

By Tracey Dowdy

When you hear the word “binge” the next thing that pops into your mind is probably “drinking” or “eating”. But, there’s a new trend in excess – bingeing on television.

Binge television: n. any instance in which more than three episodes of an hour-long drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy are consumed at one sitting.”

There was a time when you’d wait months between seasons and the only way to catch up was through reruns. VCR’s gave us freedom to watch when we were ready and to fast-forward through commercials. TiVOs and DVRs eliminated the hunt for blank tapes and the risk of recording over your wedding video. Now with the proliferation of online content on iTunes, Hulu and Netflix, we have immediate access to entire seasons of programming.

So, if you’ve been on a deserted island and have never seen a single episode of “Lost” (see what I did there?), you’re in luck. All six seasons are available on Netflix, waiting for you in their entire mind-bending glory. In the words of Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic, “It's television as novel rather than serialized story.” It’s the “Old Country Buffet” of entertainment.

So what does that mean for Hollywood? Does binge viewing really have an impact on the television and movie industry? Does it impact cable or satellite providers? You bet it does. According to research by Convergence Consulting Group, the number households dropping regular TV service to access content solely via Netflix is growing faster than expected. As smartphones, laptops, and tablets become ever-present, more people are seizing the opportunity to “catch up” on TV series they’ve missed.

Gone are the days when we were tied to the networks’ programming schedules. For years, “Saturday Night Live” has been “Sunday Afternoon DVR” at my house. Binge viewers take it one step further. Why watch just one episode when you can go back and watch the entire series?

Perhaps no demographic has embraced this trend more wholeheartedly than college students. In the words of Bob Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and professor at Syracuse University, “There is no experience quite comparable to getting a really good show and getting the box-set seasons lined up, locking your door, filling your freezer full of microwaveable food, turning off the telephone, turning out the lights and just going crazy.”

Students may not own a TV, but they can access content online, often devouring a whole season or an entire series in a short period of time. My daughter, a university student, finished her classes, wrote her Nursing Board exam, and binged on the entire series of “Skins” via Netflix. “I just wanted to do something that required zero thought and effort. Watch an entire TV series in bed on my laptop? Yes please!”

One interesting effect of binge viewing is that the shows that are most watched online are not necessarily the shows garnering the highest Nielsen ratings. This changes the landscape for writers. Watching back to back episodes makes plot holes stand out, cliff-hangers are less suspenseful, and bad dialogue can be more unbearable. It also means writers can explore and go deeper with characters and storylines, allowing audiences to connect with characters in ways they couldn’t under the old format.

Sidereel CEO Roman Arzhintar says this could lead to better programming. “Better means not necessarily that people are going to spend $20 million an episode to produce something for the Internet. Rather, what will happen is that they’ll produce stuff that [we] care about more as individuals for a variety of reasons.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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