Do you like that snowclone title? Only recently i learned there’s a term for such things while reading about Star Trek’s controversial split infinitive. What follows below was the result of my final undergraduate semester at Cleveland State University, a longform narrative feature on the emergence and culture of television binge-watching. Through interviews, observations and research, i learned quite a lot about this phenomenon the effect it’s having not only on the TV-viewing audience, but the TV-producing one as well. Additionally, i discovered that i’ve watched a helluva lot of television in my time. This also serves as an introduction to a few category here on The Long Shot devoted to binge-worthy programs. But don’t worry – they won’t all be this lengthy.
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In the halcyon days of my childhood, while my millennial classmates were mesmerized by colorful mobiles dangling above their cribs (if they were even born yet – yes I’m that old), a typical Saturday morning found me dashing from bed with the first hints of morning light. Carefully I crept down the creaky stairs to the kitchen, mindful of my movements so as not to awaken a surly older brother or distraught divorcee mother taking advantage of an opportunity to sleep in.
Stealth was employed not because I was respectful of their need for rest. In fact I often wondered why they chose to slumber when the hard-earned freedom of a weekend was finally at hand. But this was my time, and I took great precaution to guard it from intrusion. With sugary cereal bowl in hand, I planted myself before the television set, that great big bulky wood-encased monument to entertainment with its rows of dials and knobs that once proudly dominated living rooms across the country before the uprising of sleek flat screen technology relegated it to something to be hidden in the landscape of a room.
I think this is actually the same model we had in our living room. It wasn’t just a television set – it was a piece of furniture! No remote control either. Ugh.
This was the hallowed age of Saturday Morning Cartoons, the hours between 8 a.m. and noon understood in the zeitgeist as the purview of children nationwide. The time was filled with what seemed to be a four-hour continuous ride on Hanna-Barbera’s Cartoon Express, really just a multi-episode marathon of the seminal animation studio’s offerings.
In a similar fashion, evenings followed rote tradition. The hours after school spent playing outside (a practice sadly seldom observed today) gave way to dinner time followed by devotion to homework, all in anticipation of prime time gatherings for the likes of Cheers, Married with Children, Golden Girls and the like. I may not have understood all the content, or experienced awkwardness when I did grasp the humor of sexual innuendo-laced jokes (because who wants their mom to know they got it?), but this was simply what was done between 8 and 10 p.m. on a weekday. It was what network television was serving, and if you wanted to partake in the shared courses of entertainment, you sat there and ate it up. By the time syndicated programs showed in succession I was already tucked away in bed fast asleep (actually reading comic books by flashlight).
The advent of cable television changed the game, sure, but it was still the same game. It was a matter of control, and in the realm of television, the viewer had very little of it. The selections swelled. The choice between channels 3, 5 and 8 grew, adding double-digit outliers like 19 and 43 and all the way up into the 70s – potentially higher if one was willing to watch between the blurred lines of scrambled signals. If you were fortunate enough to have premium access with your cable, you were privy to the holy grail of television at the time, channels like HBO and Showtime where you could watch films like The Toy or Star Wars, or The Toy or Star Wars, or The Toy or…I seem to recall the TV Guide channel displaying a never-ending stream of those two films.
The point is, as consumers, we were limited in our endeavor to be entertained through television by the time block schedules deliberately devised through arcane means behind the closed doors of network offices. At most, you might catch a marathon of M*A*S*H in syndication, or a special holiday treat like an all-day run of The Twilight Zone.
Then along came the almighty VCR tape, relic of a bygone age which segued into the DVD and the associated boxed sets of our culture’s favorite programs. All of a sudden, tribes of diehard fandom could gather to engorge themselves on a season of The X-Files.
Next, we had the DVR and TiVo. The Blu-Ray collections. OnDemand programming.
Now, finally, the proliferation of the Internet has brought us into the Age of Netflix. If you’re a bit more savvy and perhaps a bit morally ambiguous, there are also torrent services like The Pirate Bay. In addition, official network websites, Hulu and most recently Amazon Prime entice streaming video viewership as well, with the added bonus of advertising revenue. And regardless of where we get our favorite television shows, talk around the water cooler has changed dramatically. What used to be “did you see that episode last night?” became “what season are you on?” The goal in such inquiries might be the same – finding common ground for discussion – but the methodology is vastly different.
The advent of streaming content online, with our ability to do so untethered to the living room boob tube of an earlier era, has given consumers unparalleled control over what, where, and when they watch their favorite shows. And the content creators have started to take notice.
According to a Harris Interactive poll, just about 78 percent of Americans utilize technology that enables them to watch TV shows whenever and where ever they want. Out of that group, about 62 percent do so by watching multiple episodes of a single show at a time – a phenomenon that’s added the term “binge watching” to the lexicon of our times. And just as surely as Walter White’s “blue sky” methamphetamine proved an addictive hit, so too was the show that cooked it up in the first place. Often cited as an early herald of the binge-watching trend, Breaking Bad may very well have not even been completed if it weren’t for the streaming technology that created the culture of binge-watching, something series creator Vince Gilligan readily admits.
“Under the old paradigm – using the old technology of simply having first runs and then reruns on networks – I don’t know that we would’ve reached the critical mass that we reached,” Gilligan told Wired magazine, admitting his doubts they’d have reached 62 episodes without these innovations.
Thanks to the exposure granted through Netflix, Breaking Bad’s viewership experienced dramatic increases every season. According to Nielsen ratings, the show’s Season 4 viewers increased a whopping 23 percent over the previous season with 1.9 million people glued to their screens each week. That number shot up to 2.6 million during the final season and many – myself included – spent a few weeks in the summer before it started slavishly allowing Netflix to run episode after episode to catch up so we could join the 10.3 million who watched the series finale.
But is it Netflix alone that’s responsible for this incredible surge in TV viewing trends? Not entirely, despite data that suggests it’s certainly a major contributor. There’s little doubt that once the entertainment juggernaut segued from the at-home delivery of DVDs to providing streaming content in 2008, a sea change brought about a dramatic swell in popularity to the point that 47 percent of consumers polled responded that Netflix is a must-have app.
The kind of unprecedented accessibility we now enjoy, especially considering the infamous Netflix “post play” feature that gives you all of a few seconds to decide if you want to watch the next episode before…oh, there it goes, already started playing…only intensifies the bingeing compulsion. But that alone doesn’t explain the cause. In fact, in a cause-effect scenario, it acts primarily as the latter. For instance, when my penchant for programs featuring protagonists of a darker nature led me to *ahem* acquire Season 1 of NBC’s Hannibal, I had to rouse myself from being sunken into the cushy embrace of a heavily-padded and pillowed bed to cross the room and start the next episode from a video file myself.
Then do it again for the next one.
And the next.
And the next.
And by the next time the announcer didactically tells me to tune in next Thursday at 10/9 central, I’m thinking next Thursday? I’m watching it right now!
If I get six hours of sleep, I’m good.
Five isn’t bad.
I’ll just put one more on, but I’ll turn off the lamp. That’s kind of like sleeping, right?
In a similar fashion, while blazing through the entire run of Dexter condensed and consumed in about four or five weeks of squeezing in three or four episodes on the desktop, a couple before I leave for work on the laptop sitting on the kitchen counter consumed along with the usual yogurt and OJ, one on my tablet in the Atrium Café before class, and 20 minutes on my phone during a lunch break, I was positively shocked by the titular character’s sibling sassing him.
“That was two years ago, Dexter,” admonished Deb. His sister, a cop herself, thinks the world of her adoptive brother. If she only knew, am I right? But at the time, all I’m thinking is two years ago?! That was yesterday afternoon.
The same could be said of the return of The Walking Dead’s Merle Dixon, who was gone for all of about a week as far as I was concerned (he was missing for almost two seasons).
Some of the answers to why, in this era of 140-character Tweets and attention spans about the same as the time it takes to do an Internet search, we indulge ourselves in hours upon hours of TV watching lie in our biology – and content creators are increasingly savvy to this secret knowledge.
According to some psychological research, when we watch hyperserialized programming with its adult themes, antiheroes and cinematic art direction, our own brain chemistry mimics that of the characters we see on the screen. In a sense, we’re experiencing the same anxiety and tension as those characters. And when every episode leads to a catharsis, along with a nail-biting cliffhanger, our natural instinct is to prolong that feeling. Because of this, we play against type in our fast-paced world and stick around for as many episodes as we can justify in a single sitting. In that way, it’s like riding the most exciting rollercoaster you can imagine, except when it pulls back into the station, instead of getting out of the car we simply stick around for another go, repeating the cycle until some external force makes us stop. Like falling asleep, or the threat of missing work or class. And if you’re really hardcore, even those won’t stop you, as was famously parodied on the Portlandia sketch “One More Episode.”
By the way, Portlandia is a great show to binge-watch.
It’s this sort of reasoning that has given rise to an evolved sort of binge-watching. Back when Breaking Bad was exploding in the cultural consciousness, for many including myself, the race to get caught up was a challenge, because we wanted to be on the same page as everyone else once the next season started. But once it aired, we suddenly found ourselves swimming in the molasses of a week-long wait between episodes. And sure, they were worth the wait, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a twinge of frustration.
It’s very much like reading a great collected edition of a comic book arc. I once spent an afternoon completely enthralled by a trade paperback of a two-year run on Daredevil, afterwards thinking it would have been torturous (and not nearly as gripping) if I’d had to get the story in short installments over 24 months.
For these folks, there’s a kind of disconnect going from the binge to the waiting game, with many claiming their intention to wait until a series is over before watching (although I suspect they’re sneaking in a weekly dose anyway). These completionists want the whole package now, and shrewd showrunners have started to offer audiences just that, with shows like House of Cards and Arrested Development being released an entire season at a time.
But it’s not only the latest and greatest shows that are gaining the attention of bingers. Older shows, already completed months, years, and even decades ago, are experiencing new surges of interest. If your Facebook feed is anything like mine (that is, filled more with Liked media than all those pesky real people) you might spend a free morning watching a few episodes of Three’s Company. And if you’re particularly diligent about what you watch, you’ll spend a good deal of time vetting the next object of your attention.
A close friend of mine, Brett, is fastidious in his research of anything he might devote time or resources to, and applies that diligence to his television watching habits as well. If those carefully cultivated hours of the day are going to be spent doing something, he’s going to ensure in advance whether it’s worth the investment. But once he’s settled on a series to watch, he is adamant in his avoidance of any further investigation.
“I hate spoilers and wikis and all that stuff,” he told me flatly, roundly rejecting the wealth of supplemental material floating around out there. “I don’t want to know all the details about every character and speculations about what’s going to happen down the road.”
In this view, we differ greatly. That same morning, I had the latest episode of Hannibal playing in one Window while I boned up on the Thomas Harris universe in another one adjacent to it. I wanted to know more about not only the fictional people capturing my attention, but also the creators behind the show. What other projects were these actors, directors and producers involved with? Perhaps therein I’d find another wonderful way to while away the hours.
Brett is more content to simply enjoy a show for whatever it’s worth, watching from the latest-and-greatest laptop that rests on his prone body after all four of his kids are in bed for the night, the homework done, chores completed, family Nintendo time finished and teeth begrudgingly brushed under the roof of the three-story suburban craftsman style home I helped him renovate. The wife is fast asleep, a necessary function that is anathema to the husband who lay next to her. Next to the marital bed, an omnipresent cup of coffee sits on the side table beside a custom-made nicotine juice vaporizer reminiscent of an inert lightsaber – stimulants their possessor claims have no effect on him.
“I would stay up until three or four in the morning anyway,” he reasons, more to convince himself than anyone else. Those who know him well enough doubt his earnest sincerity, can feel the heat of his overworked metabolism from close range and have more than a few times witnessed the way he simply ceases to be awake once his body surrenders to all attempts at remaining so.
“That’s why I choose things like [Star Trek] Enterprise, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, because I know I’ll experience an epic saga,” Brett said of his latest venture, into space – the final frontier, to be exact. “I love the ongoing nature of stories and character development,” he continues, demonstratively using his hands to suggest a serial progression of compartmentalized units.
I can totally dig that sentiment. As far as the commonly accepted definition of a television binge is concerned – watching between 2-6 episodes of the same TV show in one sitting – I’ve binged on lots of shows over the years, including a stint of Star Trek brought about by Brett’s resent interest in the show. Both he and I scoffed at the idea of a five year mission, warping through our respective seasons in a matter of weeks.
Primarily, in my case this springs from a conscious lack of cable television and a decade-plus relationship with The Pirate Bay. When your source of television content is your desktop/laptop/tablet/smartphone, your consumption habits tend towards the all-inclusive. If I download the entire animated classic Robotech series, it’s not so I can watch that one episode that crossed my mind the other day. It’s so I can watch the whole saga, beginning to end.
I was half-pleased to witness Brett’s transformation into a…Trekkie or Trekker (that conversation is still ongoing in the galaxy at large, or at least the Alpha Quadrant). As a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future since childhood, I grew up with the original series (TOS – the best one) in syndication, so I was dismayed to hear he strangely avoided that one. It seems that during his vetting process, he discovered a chronological timeline for the Star Trek universe in the form of an episode guide that accounted for the various series. He confessed that TOS always seemed hokey and disjointed to him, and I took comfort in potentially persuading him to give it a try. Especially after he revealed that he really enjoys longform stories set amidst a scenario of war. I noted several TOS episodes, including my personal favorite “A Taste of Armageddon,” that would appeal to his sensibilities.
The completionist in him prefers things like this primarily because the stories are already complete. Typically, he avoids those still ongoing because of uncertainty towards the conclusion, noting that when Enterprise was unexpectedly cancelled, it upset him quite a bit. Not because he particularly loved it, but more so because the abrupt nature of the end was jarring.
On the other end of the spectrum, people like my roommate and sometimes creative-collaborator Dan have no compunctions about watching a handful of any particular show before moving on to something else. I frequently campaign hard for him to check out any of the terrifically dark and disturbing programs that ensnare my attention (if that campaign is only in the form of daily affirmations on how exceptional I felt this-or-that program to be).
“I never finish watching any them,” he says of shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad, Lost or any of the other hyper-popular programs from recent years. “A lot of these shows, they start off with a great premise or whatever, and the first season is phenomenal. And then after that, it’s like they just amp up whatever was in the first season, but it’s essentially the same things again and again until the main character dies in the end or whatever.”
In the living room of our generic apartment furnished with only two leather recliners and a thrift store hexagonal coffee table between them, this night owlish man often sits alone. Dan is 40 years of age, his salt-and-pepper scruff has become mostly salt, and his yoga-toned body has been softened a bit by a penchant for late-night pasta. The secondhand side table is cluttered by the impromptu rocks glass which serves as an ashtray, empty coffee cup and plates with the remains of nocturnal meals illuminated by the small lamp, the white toque-like shade of which is sullied by smoke and dust brought about by our favorite pastime – sitting around talking. Sounds completely pedestrian, I know, but in the tradition of Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett our musings often lead to unplanned discoveries of ourselves and the world we live in. Each possessed of wild individuality, we nonetheless share enough commonality that an analogy involving coins and their dual surfaces can be considered apropos.
On his lap sits what he calls a “cheapie model” laptop that serves as his connection to the world at large. For him, the day only just begins at midnight – often with the series of the same name @midnight. His night shift job waiting tables at a trendy bistro behind him, his uniform of black shirt, slacks and sneakers is replaced by sweatpants and ill-fitting T-shirt – his “comfies.” He will be awake until just before the sky begins to lighten with the first hints of daybreak. The solitary hours until then will typically pass through a cycle of Internet video watching interspersed with trips to the kitchen for snacks and the occasional break to lovingly stroke the tuxedo cat who once or twice will venture from my room into the common area for a nibble.
For Dan, the selection process of what to watch is the antithesis of Brett’s in that there is no thoughtful consideration beforehand. It is pure whimsy, perhaps with a nudge brought about by something read or seen online, or that had come up in conversation earlier that evening. For the most part, he settles upon cartoons, both from his youth as well as more modern fare like Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Lately, he’s been plowing through episodes of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, a classic 80s television show he excitedly found almost entirely on YouTube.
“You know what’s weird is that I can recall so much stuff I saw as a kid, and it’s like all the lessons I learned about life that come to mind when I’m facing a difficult situation come from shows I watched growing up,” he confessed in a somewhat self-revelatory manner. He is more likely to engage in marathon of WKRP In Cincinnati than, say, Breaking Bad or any of the other water cooler shows that have captured so many attentions over the last few years. When it comes to serial dramas and self-contained stories of a finite nature, he’s given several of them a shot, but their inevitable endings have gone unviewed.
“Once it becomes like ‘a thing,’ or I’m aware of it like that, I lose interest quickly,” Dan expresses. “When I hear everyone talking about it, and see articles and posts constantly…it doesn’t seem special anymore, you know? It’s not that I mind spoilers or anything. It’s just, after a certain point you know the end is coming, and there’s kind of a logical conclusion to it you pick up on so it feels like ‘what’s the point?’”
He does, however, make an exception for the mega-popular Game of Thrones, which he implores me to partake in for the really cool, well-done fantasy, assuaging my trepidation by telling me I’d dig it. It would only be fair to the research to give it another shot, since my first foray into Westeros left me less than enthused. The return visit did not move the needle any closer to liking it though, but I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to the swords-and-sorcery genre I’m about as picky as they come.
For Dan and his general lack of interest in the popular programs of the day, it’s more than just an aversion to falling in line with what everyone is doing, though that is part of it. There is definitely a part of him that consciously remains an outsider to whatever societal trends apply any sort of pressure upon people, an aspect of his personality that is often mistaken for some sort of malaise that our deep discussions have taught me stems from something more akin to philosophical reasons. And although he is engaged when presented with relatively realistic depictions of human drama, a disconnect occurs when that drama persists and demands more of him than simply popcorn-worthy attention for only the sake of pure entertainment.
When it becomes, not a chore, but an investment of emotions, he tends to tune out. It’s not for lack of understanding such things, as our frequent late-night dissections of popular culture have revealed he often has intuitive insights into human nature. For him, the lack of ongoing interest follows from a desire to be entertained in a more positive way – through laughter and a celebration of humankind’s lighter aspects – qualities only sporadically explored in today’s binge-worthy television dramas.
Down the hall from Dan, in the post-separation/pre-putting-my-life-back-together pad of white walls, standard apartment-beige carpet and bottom-denominator décor, I prepare for my own journey through whatever program I’ve deemed worthy of my time. The plentiful pillows that match the warm colors of the impressionistic autumn scene hanging on the otherwise stark bedroom walls are carefully arranged for maximum comfort, mindful of the good chance I will fall asleep mid-episode. The college chic bookshelf lamp is turned off, with just the low-watt one set beside the low-grade futon shedding just enough light to see the quick notes I dash off as the show streams on the widescreen desktop monitor that sits on the big box store desk of dark espresso particle board. Next to the monitor, the brushed steel laptop rests, charging for the following day’s plan to get out of the house and do some work at a favorite café…and pick up watching whatever episode I fell asleep to the night before.
On the floor, a tablet waits to answer the slew of curiosity-generated questions that will spring to mind regarding Hannibal, the provocatively-titled show that my Google-fu skills informed me was the natural hit for a person who can’t get enough of stories featuring dark and dangerous protagonists. With only a single season in the can, I could safely indulge myself in the story without the compulsion to catch up on two, three, five, eight seasons.
Has there ever been a more charming killer with such uncertain motives? I imagine Dr. Lecter seeing an ad for my beloved Dexter.
’America’s Favorite Serial Killer’?
I can picture the smirk of derision on the face of Mads Mikkelsen, whose plum job it is to portray the iconic character.
“Perhaps it’s time I remind them about me,” the dark doctor might have mused.
So what is it about Hannibal that, like its predecessors Breaking Bad and Dexter, draws me in?
Citing the success of the critically-acclaimed True Detective, which I can attest to be a worthwhile target for your next TV binge, those in the know about the business of show note that the new Golden Age of Television we’re experiencing is one largely led by directors, often from the world of cinema.
Not discounting writer-producer programs like The Wire and The Sopranos, which certainly laid the bedrock for the popularity of serialized TV, a significant number of feature film directors are making their way from the silver screen to the small screen (and even smaller screens of tablets and smartphones). Part of this growth is attributed to the lure of television’s promise of creative control for directors, who are given increasing freedom to produce “block” programming, like the aforementioned True Detective’s anthology format. Traditionally in television, writers and producers were at the helm making decisions, with directors filling a deferential role.
Part of this shift has come about in response to binge-watching itself. Because consumers are able to bypass the television completely and receive programming through streaming services, the demands on creators for distribution results and viewership for ad revenue has made the atmosphere more relaxed and opened new opportunities to enter the TV arena that draws previously skeptical filmmakers. And they’re more than excited to bring their cinematic vision to an entire season’s arc rather than the occasional single episode of a program. In a similar fashion, film stars have grown more interested in television work because of the opportunity to do a single great story rather than an open-ended series.
Developing trends like this are perhaps the biggest reason television is luring filmmakers away from Hollywood – as director Eli Roth considers his Netflix series Hemlock Grove not as a serial program but instead a “13-hour independent film.” Creators are discovering the efficacy of crafting a program with complex storylines if simply for the fact that the memory of the previous installment remains fresh in the viewers’ mind. In fact, Hollywood as a whole has seen significant decline in recent years, with the possibilities offered by home entertainment outweighing the social ritual of visiting the cineplex in much the same way that home video game consoles caused the demise of coin-op arcades.
There was a time in my youth when my best friend routinely swiped money from his siblings and parents to pour into the Super Mario Bros. machine at the 7-Eleven around the corner from our houses. In high school, my manager at McDonald’s would take petty cash to Funsville across the street so we could have a shot at finishing Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow over Mystara. And all the way up into my first couple of years in college, my friends and I waged epic battles of Bust-a-Move at the bowling alley. And sure, there were home consoles the whole time like the Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis, but they never quite had the same oomph as the stand-ups at the arcade. Then Sony put the Playstation in our homes and offered an experience superior in every way to what we’d been going out to find – and without the need to pump an endless stream of quarters. In the same fashion, home entertainment has in many ways surpassed the experience of the movie theater, offering greater control as well as eye candy without the added price of admission and concessions.
In some weird way, the ultimate example of this amalgamation of cinetelevision is the new FX show Fargo. Based on the 1996 Coen brothers’ movie of the same name, the show seeks to spin a dark comedy-crime drama out of the fabric of the film. Making its debut on April 15, the anthology show features a cast of well-known and successful film actors including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and Kate Walsh. Whether or not it becomes binge-worthy remains to be determined. Like another new series, Turn – a period drama based on the true story of a Revolutionary War spy ring, I’m watching each episode as they are aired or, to be more specific, the following day thanks to good ol’ Pirate Bay. Who knows? If they’re exceptional enough I may go back someday and binge watch an entire season just to see if the viewing experience is any different. I’m currently in the midst of doing that with Breaking Bad’s final season and, despite knowing what the outcome will be, I’m happy to report there’s a different sort of electric excitement that comes from appreciating the ability to watch the whole thing uninterrupted by those irksome interruptions called “weeks” between each installment.
With all of the eyes focused on what’s streaming across our screens, it’s only natural that the people on the other side are peering back at us, too. According to psychographic survey data, the TV shows we watch are of great interest to marketers. It’s certainly no surprise to anyone that Americans love watching television – recent Nielsen data shows we spend an average of 34 hours each week watching TV that includes nine hours of commercials (another reason I find bingeing to be superior, for the lack of interruptive advertising). And while that demographic info is of use to content creators, there is a rising degree of importance placed on psychographic data. A recent study by TipTap Lab, a firm that employs a unique psychological approach to help companies establish deeper connections with current and potential customers, analyzed personality traits as a means to predict television viewing preferences.
“I was blown away at the predictive strength of personality traits relative to demographics,” TipTap’s director of research Kyle Thomas posted on the lab’s blog. “And I was pleasantly surprised to find that demographics and personality are additive predictors, meaning they provide unique, complementary insight into what shows people are likely to watch.”
Naturally, this sort of information is most relevant to advertisers, whose goal it is to sell products to the viewing audience. Using the kind of psychographic data revealed by researchers like TipTap and Mindset Media – another firm that studied the link between personality traits and what types of products those consumers were most likely to buy – marketers can tailor ads to most effectively target the sorts of people who watch any particular type of program.
Television show writers and creators are seeing the benefits of this sort of research, as well. Although still a burgeoning phenomenon, binge-watching as we know it today has disrupted the hierarchy of the traditional television model and the people behind the shows are taking steps to adapt. And much of the change is cultivated by Netflix simply by virtue of the sheer number of subscribers.
Already, several other programs look to follow the new form of serial entertainment pioneered by House of Cards. Shows like Lilyhammer, the first original series offered exclusively by Netflix, also released an entire season at once in a move that surprised industry veterans used to the traditional broadcast network model. But because of the ever-increasing volume of binge-watchers, this emergent practice will only continue to grow as streaming services hope to keep viewers hooked by catering to their habits.
But there is a downside to all the data, research and analysis being garnered.
“The only place that I tend to use data is why I want to tell a story,” explained The Wire creator David Simon during a panel discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival. “You’re servicing the story, you’re servicing the character…you feel responsible to the story. And if you look over your shoulder for a moment and start [hearing that] the audience wants more Omar, the audience wants more Stringer,” he cautions that a show will transform into a formula.
A valid perspective, to be sure, but one that speaks to the idea of control over the medium and suggests that the viewer has achieved a modicum of it that they previously hadn’t enjoyed – at least not consciously. The change is subtle, but it is there. And it’s only growing thanks to consumers’ ability to interact with creators in ways never before possible through communications technology, the Internet and social media. Creators can do more than simply see how many people are watching a show at a particular time. Now, they can determine what kinds of people are watching. And viewers are more than happy to offer up their needs, wants, likes and desires directly with those responsible for creating content.
While there may be some creators, like David Simon, concerned that the give-and-take from viewers can have a negative impact on the stories they tell, this environment of freely exchanged information can’t be returned to the Pandora’s Box from whence it came. The results are yet to be seen, and the renaissance of television we’re living in now has really only just begun, and the surface of possible programming only just scratched.
But television fans aren’t just looking forward anymore, either. Binge-viewing has had some unexpected effects on TV culture by producing a resurgence of interest in older shows and giving them a second life. Shows like Lost are finding new fans who consume the intricate plots in a more visceral way through bingeing, and shows from overseas like Luther, Spaces and Sherlock Holmes are resonating with U.S. viewers too.
And there’s never a bad time to catch of few episodes of Three’s Company. Heck, I may even track down its British precursor Man About The House. There’re only 39 episodes of that show. So, maybe a couple of days’ worth of bingeing to see the progenitor of one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. I suspect it won’t hold up to the high esteem I place upon Jack Tripper and company’s escapades, but you have to learn to trot before you can gallop…who said that?
Perhaps, in the next few years, kids will reclaim their Saturday mornings from…whatever it is they do these days. Brett tells me his kids actually sleep in on the weekends! Or if they do get up early they’ll more than likely play video games. Probably they could start watching their cartoons on a wearable multimedia device, pick up where they left off while on a wall-mounted screen while brushing their teeth and maybe even catch another episode on the back of the cereal box itself.
And who knows, they might even book passage on the same Cartoon Express that carried me straight through until noon every weekend morning. For all I know, their living room might just project a holographic image of Yogi Bear all around them, and they can enjoy their sugary cereal right there in Jellystone Park.