When the phrase “binge viewing” first began to be used, there was a certain amount of uncertainty about how many consumers would actually participate in the activity, and whether it was a flash in the pan trend. Today, it is pretty clear that binge viewing—technically defined as watching three or more episodes of a television show in one sitting—is here to stay. 88% of Netflix users and 70% of Hulu Plus users have participated in binge viewing, and subscribers to on-demand services that encourage the behavior are steadily increasing. The Atlantic Wire reported that “House of Cards had become the most watched title of anything on Netflix — and that nearly every subscriber who watched one episode went on to watch another.” But uncertainties about the effects of binging are still plentiful; fears that binging is killing water-cooler talk, ending the cliff-hanger and even “killing the golden age of TV” are alive and well. And it is understandable that a completely new way of consuming media that has a near-meteoric rise in popularity (led mostly by influential young consumers) would make waves and create insecurities for the entertainment industry. But the truth is that binge viewing isn’t necessarily killing anything as much as it is shifting the way that viewers think about and talk about TV. What binging on entertainment is most certainly doing is changing consumer expectations of shows and the cultural touchpoints that they provide—and the sooner that the industry is able to understand those shifts and expectations, the sooner they will be able to play to them and endear their audiences further. In the shadow of Breaking Bad, a show that highlighted some of the ways that binging is altering entertainment consumers’ expectations, we’re looking at three of the shifts at play:
1. It’s All About the “The End”
Yesterday, a Buzzfeed post on Breaking Bad opined, “Ending a television show is as hard as hell to do. But if one new business model for television is binging, it’s actually imperative that the show end well. Or all of that Netflix/Amazon/iTunes action the show was seeing during its life will fall off a cliff. Who in their right mind would tell someone now to begin watching Dexter? Better never to start.” Binging has made the end of a show more important than ever, because new consumers watching shows that have already ended have an expectation for a high payoff, and can judge whether they should start watching in the first place based partly on whether people say the ending is worth it. In the past if the finale of a show was less-than-well-received, the show was over and the negative effects of the negative reviews were almost non-existent (see: Seinfeld). Sure, online commenters might bring it up now and then as a disappointment, but on the whole there wasn’t much lost. But consumers in the age of binging need to know that their time investment is going to be rewarded, and that the end of their short-term relationship with a show will be a satisfying one. There are so many options available to them that word of a poor ending can easily get a show knocked off their ever-expanding entertainment to-do list.
2. Series Integrity Trumps Longevity
We have already referred to the short-term relationship nature of the binge viewing experience. Rather than being stretched out over years, a viewer’s interaction with the characters and plot is condensed into a few weeks, or in some cases a very dedicated (and couch-oriented) weekend. This alters not just their experience, but also their emotional connection with the entertainment. They no longer have the expectation that these characters will be in their lives for a prolonged amount of time, and so the desire for a series to continue at the expense of its plot is gone. Viewers expect that a series will come to an end at a respectable time, and in a way that does justice to the story. We have already begun to see the criticism for shows that stay on the air past their prime increase. (Even die-hard fans of How I Met Your Mother, for example, are ready for the series to end.) Watching a show in one stretch also means a lower tolerance for plot holes (see: Lost), and more demand for continuity. To a binge watcher, a show should be concise and to the point, and every plot point has to fit together, with little to no excess. If this means that a series is three seasons instead of ten, they will not only understand but respect the decision.
3. Catching Up to a Live Event is an End Goal
As we reported in yesterday’s Essentials, Netflix likely played a significant role in Breaking Bad’s late-series success by allowing viewers to binge-watch to catch up. The groundbreaking show, and their ability to binge-up on it, also reconnected them with live TV for the finale, and the series might be the best recent example that communal event TV is still significant for Millennials. Binging with the goal of participating in a communal live event TV moment is a part of the allure of being able to watch large amounts of a show in a short amount of time. So binge behavior isn’t necessarily killing live TV moments, but actually making them more open to more viewers, who sometimes are watching online with the sole goal of being able to participate in that final moment. It could in fact be argued that the ability to catch up has actually elevated the significance of that live event: When buzz around a show builds, rather than be left out of a significant (pop) cultural event, viewers will invest their money, time, and effort into getting to that live end goal, making that moment all the more weighted. A show can now gain loyal viewers even multiple seasons in, and the number of fans who are able to participate in a big moment live with some real emotional stakes is only increasing. This also means that the payoff needs to be a good one (see point #1 in this list).